PDX airport renovation poses new challenge for those with mobility limitations

This post will benefit those of us who fly in or out of Oregon’s major international hub, PDX. The airport, it is a-changing, and if you think you know it and how to navigate it, but you haven’t traveled much during the pandemic, think again!

Until now (December 2021), perhaps my favorite thing about PDX was the elegant simplicity of all airside (post-security) amenities being accessible to each other. There used to be a connector between this airport’s two sides. Adding 150 feet of space inside the terminal is displacing the old walkway.View of construction at PDX from Lounge

R.I.P. airside connector!

The good news is that this generally sensible airport will regain such a connection when the major construction is done. The bad news? That is scheduled for 2023.

As of 2021, travelers need to exit security and re-clear the TSA checkpoint to go from the B/C side to the D/E side. That’s a bummer, and a change, but it makes PDX similar to many other poorly designed airports.

Note: Crossing from B/C to D/E always has been a long-ish walk, and those with difficulty walking should get assistance or allow lots of time here even when the option comes back. Fortunately, most domestic connections don’t require crossing the airport in this way.

Here’s something that had an even bigger impact on me, a person who travels with some mobility limitations due to chronic illness: the walk from check-in to gate before departure, or from gate to baggage claim upon arrival, has grown from manageable to torturous according to my abilities.

This update may also affect families with young children. Little legs on very tired, very young people may also find the new trek difficult.

If you think you already know you can comfortably handle the walking distances at PDX, please look at updated construction maps and reconsider before travel if it’s been awhile since your last transit of this normally pleasant airport.PDX airport winter day - 1

I flew into PDX in the summer, visiting my dad, and the modern “one way valve” security exit didn’t seem so very different from before. The walk was longer, yes, and around to the side whereas one used to enter and exit the secure area from a central location, but at that point the airport still felt familiar with a slight redirection.

Landing in early December, 2021, however—after an, admittedly, much longer-than-average flight time due to a fierce jet stream—walking from arrival gate to baggage claim felt like personal judgement by a cruel god. I thought I might have to stop and rest at one point. I regretted failing to ask for a wheelchair escort before I was halfway out.

Checking in, just before the New Year, to fly home again, I asked an Alaska Airlines representative if the way in was now as convoluted as the exit route had been.PDX airport Alaska Airlines gate C11 - 1

“For the next four years,” she chirped. I opted to visit the special assistance group over by the windows and take a ride to spare my feet.

If you struggle with walking long distances, I strongly advise electing wheelchair assistance at PDX until its renovations are complete. Arrive very early, and accept the help that is available.

As it happens, there was no free assistance agent to help me at 07:30 on New Year’s Eve, though someone was present with the flock* of empty wheelchairs checking boarding passes and explaining the process.

Lucky for me, they gave us the option of having one of my able-bodied kids push me in an airport-owned chair, so we were off within five to seven minutes. An elderly couple traveling on their own who’d arrived before us was still waiting as we left.

I didn’t ask for an official estimate for how long the process of being assisted might take, but I’d add at least half an hour to one’s airport dawdling allowance if traveling alone with special mobility needs requiring an airport-provided wheelchair and attendant.

It goes without saying that one’s teen may not steer a wheelchair as expertly as an experienced, paid professional. Then again, I’ve had my feet bashed by at least a couple of strangers in the past, so a strong kid who loves you isn’t the worst option at an airport.

The “traffic cop” airport employee who directs passengers into the correct TSA security line did cause us some confusion by pointing to the “Express” lane when we were actually eligible for the “PreCheck” lane.TSA Precheck logo

It’s worth knowing that PreCheck trumps Express as far as convenience goes, so use that lane if your boarding pass indicates you are eligible.

Travelers transiting the airport from one no-longer-connected terminal to another are eligible for “Express” lane priority, which did have a markedly shorter line this December morning when compared with the standard security queue. PreCheck, on the other hand, allows one to leave shoes and light jackets on one’s body, keep liquids and electronics inside one’s bag, etc.

Fortunately, the split between Express and PreCheck was very close to the body scanners and X-ray machines so we backtracked only 15 or 20 feet.

It is possible that simply being in a wheelchair caused the “traffic cop” airport employee to direct us to the Express lane. In the past, I’ve noted that wheelchair assistance often allows one to skip the security queue. If this policy is universal, that could shave off a bit of the time “wasted” waiting for an assist. Then again, I didn’t stop to interrogate the employee in question, so don’t count on cutting the line due to mobility limitations without consulting a higher authority than me.

When I make use of airport assistance in the United States, I do tip any wheelchair attendant $5 per ride.

This is not a mandatory fee—services for travelers with disabilities are the responsibility of places of public accommodation—but it does seem to be expected, particularly in the northeast region. In foreign airports when I’ve relied upon similar services, I’ve gotten baffled looks from employees less accustomed to our tipping culture, with gratuities being politely refused in New Zealand, for example.

If you only occasionally need an airport mobility assist, and haven’t typically taken advantage of one at PDX, reconsider your habits there for trips from 2022 to 2024. If your toes are anything like mine, they will thank you!Red walker on hardwood floor in home

Airport assistance is a public good meant to serve all of us who travel; don’t be ashamed to take advantage of services designed to allow everyone equal access to the world.

*What is the correct plural noun for wheelchairs, I wonder? If I get to choose, let’s go with a “roller” of wheelchairs.

Prevalent smoking should, perhaps, keep you from visiting Austria

Austria is a lovely place to visit. It has gorgeous scenery, world class art and architecture to enjoy, and a population that generally struck me as warm and welcoming.

img_0895Bilingual acquaintances from the German language learning camp in Minnesota we attended told us that we would be given more opportunity to practice our speaking skills in Austria when compared with Germany. I found this to be true.

Austrians were, as a rule, friendly and helpful. They really didn’t immediately switch to English when they heard my attempts to speak deutsch. (Germans generally do, in my experience. And, yes, their English is better than my German, almost to the man, and woman, and very small child...)

 

Perhaps the one overriding negative experienced by an American tourist in Österreich—if the language barrier is a benefit to you as it is to me, as opposed to a real barrier—is the constant exposure to second hand smoke.

img_1055.jpgI’m old enough to remember the bad old days of smoking sections in the closed compartment of an airplane, though, thankfully, those disappeared before I began flying several times per year to attend college. Smoky bars and restaurants where I wouldn’t go with my friends due to air pollution were a real issue well into my young adulthood.

Being in Austria is like being transported into the past in this regard. It took me several days to adjust. Young people in the USA today probably don’t have the adaptive response to scope out a cafe before taking a seat lest one inadvertently land in the stinking smoking section.

Though there was some Austrian legislation enacted in recent years to create separate smoking and non-smoking sections in restaurants, I still experienced unpleasantly smoky interiors several times during my trip.

Worse yet, it seems that Austrians don’t feel a need to segregate outdoor space for both smokers and non-smokers in any way. Some of us are sensitive enough that, no, even being seated the great outdoors is not enough to make it okay to sit at a table adjacent to or downwind from an active smoker.

My eyes water, and I start to cough. It’s not posturing; the smoke simply does affect me that quickly. My tearing eyes swelling shut and the irritation in my throat make me look around for the source, not the other way around.

Worse yet, because smoking is taken so much for granted in Austria, newcomers into a restaurant or onto a terrace who plan to smoke don’t think to take seats at a maximum distance from non-smokers who are already there. Try though I did to sit “far away” from all the smokers in otherwise lovely cafes, I was constantly being smoked out by new arrivals in Austria.

img_9405

These polite Austrian smokers sat at the stern of our pleasure cruise ship on the Danube, but the entire open top deck stank of cigar smoke from one man sitting forward at the bow

I gather that the xenophobic right wing government* currently in power is working to defend the rights of smokers even more violently valiantly in Austria. What a tragedy for the health of Austria’s citizens. Because, while I am easily swayed by libertarian arguments on many issues, smoking is simply not the same as free thought or speech.

The smoker has at least the option of a filter between himself and the known carcinogen he opts to ignite and inhale; standing nearby, my right to breathe freely is stolen from me.

Smoking in public places fundamentally infringes on the health and safety of others in the space. There are few other vices so directly malevolent to the public good.

Heavy drinker? While you could overindulge and vomit onto my shoes, you may be a quiet, maudlin drunk and not affect me at all. There is no equivalent for smokers. Anyone in the presence of a lit cigarette is being affected; the only remedy is to leave.

When someone invents the “smoker’s spacesuit” that operates with complete isolation of its user’s air supply and exhaust, there will be room to discuss the rights of smokers to light up in crowded public spaces.

I acknowledge your right to smoke, but I’d say the responsibility you shoulder when exercising that right is to maintain a great distance between yourself and others while you do so. The fact that you can no longer smell smoke from a few feet away is a part of the burden you’ve elected to carry with your habit; healthy people can be negatively affected at a dozen feet or more.

I was charmed by many kind, witty, thoughtful Austrians whom I encountered there. It was otherwise a wonderful place to visit, and there are many sights around the country I’d love to come back to see. Until a more modern and health-conscious public smoking policy has been enacted, however, I will probably stay away, and I would most certainly never take my asthmatic child to such a dangerous place.

Schade. What a shame.

*Self styled as the “Freedom Party,” though formed by former Nazi party members after WWII. Once again, do we see the same party harming others to grant themselves more freedom to enjoy their own lives?

A NY Times article I read while writing this post goes into more details of the political situation.