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May 28, 2022

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PDX remodel takes off: Project to bring Portland airport up to date expected to be finished in 2024

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
7 Photos
A wall blocks Concourse C from its adjoining node, which is home to the security area for the B and C gates. Travelers now walk through security and then around the node using a bypass hallway.
A wall blocks Concourse C from its adjoining node, which is home to the security area for the B and C gates. Travelers now walk through security and then around the node using a bypass hallway. (Taylor Balkom/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

PORTLAND — Walking into the Portland International Airport terminal, things seem a bit different.

Like many, I haven’t flown out of PDX since before the pandemic. Some things are immediately noticeable — namely the disappearance of the Oregon Market and the hallway behind the ticket counters that used to lead to the airport’s two security areas.

Instead, there’s a wall with two giant signs pointing B and C gate passengers to the left and D and E gate passengers to the right.

This change, as with the many others travelers can expect if they’re traveling over the holiday season, is part of the airport’s multi-year PDX Next remodel project. The $2 billion project will expand the terminal, install a new 392,000-square-foot, curved roof and update areas across the airport that need to be brought into the 2020s.

“Our terminal building, even though folks travel through it as seamlessly as one building, was actually a series of seven buildings stitched together over the years beginning in the 1950s,” says Kama Simonds, aviation media relations manager at Portland International Airport. Simonds is my tour guide through the airport today.

Like in all older buildings, some things needed to be brought up to code.

“The project grew a little bit more and a little bit more in really appropriate ways, such that the end result will be a terminal that is prepared to handle the passengers, the traffic and the volume through 2035 and beyond,” said Simonds.

As we pass through the security area into the area connecting Concourses B and C, I hardly recognize it. This area, called one of the airport’s nodes, will be closed later in the project while it, too, is remodeled. To get to a C gate, I would usually just turn right into Concourse C, which is home to Alaska and American Airlines. I’m instead directed to the left, down a long hallway guiding me all the way around the outside of the node.

“To move people safely around construction taking place, we’ve put in these bypasses,” points out Simonds. There’s another bypass on the other side of the airport, which takes passengers around that node to Concourse D — home to Delta, Hawaiian and international flights.

That’s where the biggest change comes in. Because of the construction, there is no way to get from the D and E gates to the C and B gates without going through security.

“It’s imperative,” says Simonds. “You have to look at your boarding pass and see if you’re going out of a C gate or a D gate.”

Before the construction began, a connector linked the two sides of the airport. That’s gone now. It’s been cut in half and repurposed to create the bypasses, which take passengers around the nodes to the C and D gates. Construction is taking place where the concourse connector used to be, says Simonds.

As we pass through the bypass, passengers sit in oversized chairs watching the planes come and go. People hustle behind them to get to the C gates.

“People are so excited to have the comfy chairs,” smiles Simonds.

We arrive at Concourse C, which looks familiar, except for the wall blocking off views of security and the node. Not much is being updated in this terminal.

What happens if an airline moves a connecting flight from a gate on one side of the airport to a gate on the other side of the airport, I ask Simonds.

“Airlines are being incredible partners,” she says, mentioning Alaska Airlines particularly can sometimes send flights out of a D gate.

“If they do a gate change, they’re very thoughtful about how many people will need to be on this Concourse [C].”

PDX Fun Facts

• Acres of carpet: 13

The airport currently has 13 acres of carpet and will either keep that much or add more as construction is completed.

• Number of beams  in new roof: 34

The airport’s new curvy roof is comprised of 18 cassettes and 34 supporting Y-beams, which will hold up the roof cassettes.

• Cost of construction: $2 billion

The PDX Next program, which is made up of many projects, is a $2 billion program.

• Number of construction workers: 1,500

At the onset of the program, the airport identified about 1,500 jobs supporting the PDX Next upgrades.

• Number of art pieces: 4

To date, there are four new permanent art pieces as part of PDX Next program. There will be another coming next year and there will space to for six or more additional installations in the new main terminal. “Our program strives to celebrate local artists that reflect the diversity of the region,” said Kama Simonds, spokesperson at Portland International Airport.

The connector won’t return until the end of the project in 2024, so travelers will need to get used to not being able to get from one side of the airport to the other.

“A lot of people put their heads in their phones because they’re looking at their app or their boarding pass or whatever,” says Simonds. “It’s really important to pick your head up and read the signs. The way you think you might have gone in the past might not be the way you need to go today.”

Leaving Concourse C, we cross the bypass back to the newly opened Concourse B, which is mostly used by Alaska’s and Horizon’s local flights.

“It’s really beautiful,” says Simonds, adding the concourse used to be a dark, crowded place with low ceilings. “It was not a pleasant experience, especially as compared to the rest of the airport.”

The newly remodeled terminal has floor-to-ceiling windows, art, seating and restaurants like Good Coffee and Screen Door, which will open next spring.

Crossing the airport, Simonds and I leave security and go through the D and E gates’ security area to get to the airport’s other node.

Even though it’s a weekday morning, the airport is busy. In the 10-day period the airport considers to be the Thanksgiving travel time, there were 200,000 travelers last year. This year, the airport expected half a million. “It’s been busier,” adds Simonds.

As we walk through the airport, people are all wearing masks. Masks that cover the nose and mouth are still required inside at PDX. COVID-19 testing and vaccinations are required only depending on where travelers are going. Simonds says it’s a good idea to carry a vaccination card, especially if travelers are going to a place where restaurants or museums or other indoor settings require that proof of vaccination.

“We encourage people to research the rules of the destination they’re going to,” she says.

Entering Concourse D, a wall like the one in Concourse C blocks the view to security. There is, however, a new tile rose art installation where the restrooms are. It’s one of several such installations around the airport.

“There’s a ton of research that looks at what makes people feel satisfied when they walk through an airport,” says Simonds. “When you get into designing new spaces and new facilities, you take a lot of that into consideration.”

Travelers feel stressed out when they fly, she adds. Some have a fear of flying, while others see it as a hassle. Concerns over the coronavirus have just added to that.

“Taking the body of research into consideration, music helps, artwork helps, lots of natural light helps. Places where you can just sit down when you’re feeling stressed out helps,” says Simonds. Travelers like comfort and quiet. And so the airport takes this all into account when redoing facilities.

“At the end of the day, if you don’t like flying out of here, you’ll go somewhere else. And that’s not good for the airlines or the businesses here or the airport,” she says.

As we pass by restaurants in the concourse, Simonds mentions travelers should check the airport’s website, FlyPDX.com, to see if their favorite restaurants will be open and accessible to their gate. Only Flying Elephants at PDX and Portland Coffee Roasters are available outside of security. And with the ever-changing pandemic situation, restaurants may not keep the same hours they did before the pandemic.

“Our concessionaires have been working so hard to flex their staff and their schedules around flight schedules to really try to offer people their products and their food in the right time,” says Simonds. But it’s challenging. If a traveler’s favorite spot won’t be open, pack some food.

“No one wants the hunger grumpies around the holidays.”

Concourse E, home to United Airlines and Southwest Airlines, was the first PDX Next project undertaken. It opened in the summer of 2020. It was planned four years before it opened. PDX Next planning and conversations have been six years in the making.

With all of the changes, Simonds recommends travelers get to the airport at least two hours in advance.

“I told folks over Thanksgiving, ‘The worst case is you have a little extra time, and you can get a cup of coffee and read your book and be relaxed.’ You don’t want to miss your flight.”

With airlines’ scheduling and staffing still in recovery mode, rebooking a flight can be really difficult, she adds.

Parking, however, isn’t expected to be a problem. With the airport’s new rental car center and expanded parking garage, there are now 19,000 parking spaces at the airport. Spots can be harder to find in short term parking during the holidays, however, so travelers can check parking availability in real time at FlyPDX.com.

With the entire PDX Next project, the airport is trying to make a better passenger experience, says Simonds.

“Travel is tough for folks,” she says. “Upgrading a facility so that its heating, its plumbing and its seismic resilience is where it needs to be and doing so while considering passenger comfort is what we’re going for.”

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