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.

Satisfaction derived from one (novel) work in progress

Five weeks in, I’ve written 39,645 words. I’m working on a novel.

If I ever finish it, and then publish it, you should definitely read it.

39,645 ÷ 5 = 7929 words per week

7929 ÷ 7 ≅ 1133 words per day

Truthfully, I don’t know whether to crow about this rate of progress, or if I should be mildly—or wildly—embarrassed by my sloth. Remember, I’m a dilettante who hasn’t published much more than a blog.

Then again, the world can—and will—think what it wants. In the meantime, I shall carry on developing the imaginary universe I can’t help myself from inhabiting, trying to do justice to a scientific concept that my celebrated husband offered as a plot device.

I think it is working. The fact is ridiculously exciting.

On the evening of day 35, around page 170, I got to the good part. You know, that moment where a handful of threads are woven together, and one suddenly understands why we heard about this, then that, then the other thing… ?

Truthfully, I didn’t, myself, see all of it coming. My takeaway: writing fiction can be weird.

If I were a different kind of creature, perhaps I could keep up with regular installments for a diverting blog while crafting a novel clever people would feel compelled to read. My reality defies this notion. The same pool of energy feeds both projects.

Alas, poor readers! The novel wins.

Lately, the novel also encourages me to imbibe a glass of wine alongside the lighting of a five-armed, silver-plated candelabra from my parents’ 25th wedding anniversary, so it’s kind of a strange beast. Either that, or I am the odd one, but don’t you like knowing you are reading a work composed on a laptop by candlelight? That’s not just me, is it?

I’d love to share the recent story of “My First Flight in the Era of the Novel Coronavirus” (hint: uneventful) or “Flying vs. Amtrak Reality for Those Who Take Delta Variant Seriously” (hint: airlines impose mask regulations more seriously than train conductors), but I am forced to choose.

Happily, the kids and I have made it across the USA and back into the physical presence of my father. He needs an elective-yet-function-improving surgery, he was waiting to have family around to get the thing done, and it’s a Really Wonderful Thing that we are here to support him through the process.

Today we had to change the bed sheets prior to surgery and he started bathing with the special, sticky, infection-defying soap. Now, how do we keep the dog off his bed until the incisions heal?

It’s also downright bizarre to be anywhere other than where we’ve been for the past 17 months or so. How often are the rest of you realizing how definitely we are living through Interesting Times? How often do you give thanks for the fact that you’re still around to notice said fact?

My personal answer to that last one: at least once daily.

It’s almost definitely good for my family to have its paradigm shifted at this point. I know that I have become a creature who might just as well never leave the house at all, if left to my own devices. That could likely earn me some kind of diagnosis from the DSM if I were inclined to seek professional opinions on the subject.

I’m not.

Lacking that kind of openness to criticism, I still know I benefit from noticing what’s different here (time zone, state, county, population density) vs. what’s the same. The part where the kids and I are living with Dad’s pandemic puppy is a learning experience.

While I grew up with pets, the last time I lived full time with any was a pair of cats in the 1990’s.

I was really worried that Dad wasn’t training his dog, but the pup is much better behaved than Dad’s most comedic text messages suggested. Phew!

Fear not, blog-reading friends. I am alive, healthy, and grateful for both of these things to be true. Here’s hoping that soon I’ll be begging you, my favorite audience, for beta readers for a dys-/utopian novel. Is anyone game?

May you all remain healthier than the arborvitae my dad put in his yard right before temps topped 116º F here. He’ll be lucky if 2/5 survive the summer, I’d guess. God willing, the delta variant will remain less deadly than that ratio.

Children, First Class, disability & who “deserves” to sit where in an airplane

Because I at least try to be a considerate and thoughtful traveler, I regularly look up phrases to suggest “the best way” of doing things. One such example? Parents traveling in First Class whilst their children trail along in steerage a lesser service category.

What I find most fascinating about the search results is the concurrent expression of two opinions that lead inexorably to parent shaming without a solution:

  1. Children don’t belong in First Class unilaterally!, while
  2. Parents who “abandon” their kids in Economy while riding up front themselves are monstrous jerks who should be drawn and quartered (or at least shot.)

Essentially, the sum of those two arguments leads to the conclusion that parents ought never travel in First Class while their children are under age.

Here’s where I’ll swing back around to a point I’ve stressed on this blog before: I often purchase tickets in premium cabins because of my health. Chronic autoimmune illness makes that option more comfortable—but also safer and healthier—for me.

I live with chronic pain.

Every day, I probably ache in at least a few joints. Travel—otherwise one of my great joys—can make my symptoms worse. A larger, more adaptable seat does help. More room, easier access to a lavatory, and the simple comfort of a foot rest or extensible leg support makes the difference between a successful trip and a multi-hour torture chamber.

Note that the acquisition of a more comfortable seat is something I do in addition to taking the most powerful opioid painkillers I’ve got. In transit, I will still suffer more pain than my daily average with these interventions. I choose the world-expanding possibilities of travel in spite of the cost, but the calculus for any given trip can be complex.

If there were legal protections on a minimum amount of space per passenger on a plane, the actionable facts in this argument could be different. If I were guaranteed a seat in Coach that provided enough room to shift position and freedom from being kicked and elbowed by even a plus-sized seat mate, I’d be open to debating the courtesies of keeping younger travelers out of the pointy end of the plane.

Since that is a pipe dream, however, the traveling public is going to have to tolerate my presence in Premium Economy and better, when I can afford it. And, where I go, there also will travel my children when I deem it desirable that they join me.

Given these facts, which option is preferable to the segment of society that objects to children in First Class and kids seated away from their folks?

My own choice is usually dictated by my finances.

When I score an awesome cheap fare up front, I typically book my little guy (middle school aged, so not so terribly tiny) in the seat next to me. He is delighted by the idea of a luxury trip, though modern domestic First Class is a far cry from gold-plated splendor. I prefer having his company to sitting alone.

Then again, I do actively discourage any sense of entitlement to this, my more peer-influenceable child. He has also known the joys of sleeping in a cramped Economy seat on a too-long/too-short transatlantic flight, and he knows full well how to wait his turn in the interminable queue to board, settle quickly into his seat and stow his own carry on, and then keep himself to himself en route to make the uncomfortable as tolerable as possible for everyone else aboard the jet.

The older teen would rather sit on his own regardless because he’s way too cool to be seen with me, so he’s stowed in steerage unless a really high Coach fare is actually a poor value compared with the mileage earning and family togetherness opportunities of a bargain up front.

Don’t gasp–it does happen! Leisure travelers who covet rock bottom fares and business travelers whose companies pay top dollar tend to prefer flights on different days and times.

Always check fares in all classes before booking! You may find First Class for less than Coach. It’s rare, but I have seen it* myself.

This summer, I’m accompanying my husband to a conference in the UK and we’re bringing the little guy along. On the way out, his ticket, purchased with frequent flier miles, is in Comfort+ (i.e., Premium Economy) while his father will be four rows ahead but behind the magic curtain in Delta One.

My own flight, also bought with miles, will be on a different date, itinerary, and airline entirely. We don’t have that many miles on any given airline at one time. Also, I often depart ahead of time to allow a day (or more) of recovery before entering full “tourist mode” and because I enjoy travel so much more than DH does. He rarely takes even a single day off concurrent with his business trips.

It’s a transatlantic redeye, so the kid is expected to sit, settle, and sleep. His “solo” presence is unlikely be a bother to anyone at all under these circumstances, even offering his adjacent seatmate a bit more space due to his small stature. Purchasing the equivalent to his dad’s company-paid Business Class seat was simply out of our reach.

To be clear: I, personally, am not talking about abandoning a toddler 40 rows back from his responsible adult companion. Perhaps non-parents need to be told, too, that there is no single age when every child will be ready to sit alone. As with staying home alone without direct supervision, I’d judge the right age to be over six years at a minimum and by the age of 13 for almost everyone.

Our return to the US presents a completely different set of circumstances. The lo-o-o-ong nonstop flight from Ireland to the Pacific Northwest should see the boy wide awake and therefore more likely to want or need something from a parent, if only to ask if my usual strict limit of one sweet drink per flight could be adjusted, “just this once.” I also found a relatively low fare in a premium cabin whereas Economy on the direct flight I wanted was rather high. In this scenario, I’m opting to pay to seat my child up front next to me.

It’s been argued that children don’t appreciate the “best parts” of the premium cabin experience. For many travelers, that appears to be getting drunk! True, my son won’t be sipping champagne, and he isn’t overly inconvenienced by the cramped conditions in the cheapest seats so the extra room is “wasted” on him.

Both of us will enjoy easier access to the lavatory, however, and the better service offered by less harried flight attendants. My younger son is outgoing and friendly; he will appreciate plenty about traveling with a more gracious level of service. The fact that different elements of Business Class will tickle his pre-teen fancy doesn’t make his experience count for less.

Where will my teen be during this jaunt? Well, he would rather fly alone to visit his grandparents sooner and leave the UK to the rest of us. Somehow, I’ve produced offspring that aren’t as interested in foreign travel as I am. After a bit of practice sitting in Coach 20 rows behind me, he graduated to a solo flight with Unaccompanied Minor service around age 12. Now, though still in high school and underage, he’s old enough to manage his own passage through the security gauntlet and onto a direct flight without paying for the airline’s hand-holding.

My solo teen might also annoy those who like to complain, but he’s not an intrusive passenger with his slim build and quiet habits. On his last trip to visit Grandma, he texted me joyfully upon landing from his ultra cheap middle seat that the guy by the window didn’t need to pee even once. Never having to get up once makes a great flight by his metrics.

Glasses of wine and water on airplane tray tableFeel free to compare that behavior to the tipsy adult who spills his third drink all over you and your laptop. The guy may offer to pay for your dry cleaning, but you’ll be wearing stained and sticky pants for the next half a day regardless.

*This actually seems to be most likely around holidays when families travel to be together. What a great way to treat yourself if clan gatherings are a source of great stress as well as joy for you.

If there were a way to get him booked into a hotel without an adult in the event of delays or flight cancellations, I would trust him to make connections, too. The boy is downright competent!

10 hour airport layover teaches me: respect for DFW Ambassadors

DFW Ambassadors are airport information employees well qualified for their customer service jobs.

How often do you think about modern air travel and equate it with kindness, respect, patience, and professionalism? Speak to a few DFW Ambassadors, and you might begin to lean in that direction.

That was my experience when I sought airport information in Dallas-Ft Worth in July of 2018.

airport information display boardIt’s more popular to spread videos of Airlines Behaving Badly and Flight Attendants Gone Rogue, not to mention Passengers Punching Each Other, but that stuff just makes for salacious headlines.

My blog will probably never garner millions of views, in part because I’d prefer to highlight useful DFW airport employees who staff information kiosks and answer questions for average travelers who never go viral. Without a 10 hour layover to attempt to fill with meaningful activity, I probably wouldn’t even have spoken to any of these folks. I’m happy that I did engage with a few. Continue reading

10 hour airport layover teaches me: airport showers are awesome & often accessible

If you’ve never stepped foot in an airline lounge, you might not know that some of them have shower facilities. That isn’t very important for most of us who take the occasional domestic flight, but it can be a real game changer after a red eye or when laying over before an international long haul.

img_7364You don’t need a First Class ticket to use an airport shower facility, though you’re more likely to gain access for “free” if you spent a lot more for your ticket. At DFW, for example, the Minute Suites Terminal D location–a nap cubicle “hotel” past security in the airportalso sells shower passes with no private suite rental required.

Expect to pay around $30 to buy access to a fee-based airport shower facility, or around $50 per traveler if you’re purchasing access to an airline lounge like the American Airlines Admiral’s Club I used at DFW.

I probably wouldn’t have paid for a shower during my ten hour layover in July, but, having taken one in part to kill time after I’d visited every terminal and viewed all of the public art in DFW’s brochure, I would consider paying for a shower the next time I’m spending more than a few hours cooling my heels en route.

For me–an introvert with arthritis–I got about equal pleasure from two separate aspects of this experience. First, being totally alone in a room after hours of being in public. Second, the nice, warm shower itself, which always does some good at easing my joint pain.

DFW Terminal A Admiral’s Club shower

img_7366img_7367Can you ever feel really, REALLY unhappy when looking at a pile of fluffy white towels someone else has placed for your comfort and convenience? I can’t!

Everything you need comes with the key to the private shower room at the Admiral’s Club-DFW Terminal A location. Ask at the front desk to get access.

Shampoo, shower gel, Q-tips, and cotton balls are in place in the room, ready for your use. I used my own, of course, since sensitive skin is another fact of my life, but the products offered weren’t overly perfumed. This is a reasonably safe space/experience for those of us who get headaches from strong fragrances.

DFW Admiral Lounge AA shower - 1There were more towels than I needed, enough that I might ask, next time, for just what I would plan to use to save the water/energy of washing untouched linens. The space was quite scrupulously clean. There’s also a luggage rack to keep your suitcase above* the damp, and a hairdryer if you want it.

Since I was feeling quite well, I forgot to ask if there were accessible showers, but either they all are in this Admiral’s Lounge, or I just happened to get one that was. It had a fold down bench in the shower enclosure and an adjustable height hand shower wand in addition to the rain shower head. You won’t lose out on luxury if you just need grab bars sometimes, like me.

If you can’t stand at all, you might need to ask the staff to lower the hand shower to an appropriate height on your behalf. Mine was set way up at the top of its range when I walked in.

London Heathrow AA Arrivals Lounge shower

In addition to the Admiral’s Club shower at DFW, I took advantage of the same perks included with my First/Business ticket, purchased with Alaska Airlines frequent flier miles on AA, and visited the American Airlines Arrivals Lounge after retrieving my checked bag at London-Heathrow (LHR).

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 2LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 3

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower toiletries - 1Though without a doubt the more hygienically important shower I enjoyed during the trip, the Heathrow shower room was smaller, less well appointed with little extras, and decidedly not accessible. (Again, I failed to ask specifically for a stall equipped for mobility impairments, so this is what you get without asking for special treatment.)

LHR Arrivals Lounge AA shower - 1There was no luggage rack in the compact LHR Arrivals Lounge shower room, leaving me to wedge my full size carry on next to the sink on the lavatory counter itself. I had checked a mid-size rolling suitcase, which you can see standing on the floor beneath the counter and blocking the exit door in my photo.

Perhaps there was luggage storage somewhere else for those who pack heavily, because there certainly wasn’t space in the shower room for large checked bags!

It was as clean as you would expect, however, and made the transition from night flight to the Tube less stressful than it might have been in spite of temps in the 90’s on London’s non-air-conditioned subway cars.

 

Dublin, Ireland 51st & Green Lounge shower

Upon my return from the United Kingdom to the USA, laying over at Dublin (DUB) airport, the 51st & Green Lounge, post security, was free for USA-bound Business and First Class customers, but accessible to anyone willing to pay the €39 entrance fee.

DUB departure Lounge 51st and Green shower - 1Shower use is included in the price, but there is just one accessible stall available, and it is combined with the only wheelchair accessible toilet in the space.

img_7478 This accessible bathroom/shower—also serving as the sole baby changing space— is in a different area than the main restrooms, also off the main entrance hallway but a bit further along from the front door. Thankfully, this made it a bit closer to the lounge’s seating areas. The primary restrooms felt like a real trek as my arthritis acted up during my wait.DUB departure Lounge 51st and Green showers - 1

Knowing that no other handicapped toilets were available if I opted to use the shower made someone with generally good mobility like me hesitate to even consider taking one, though I was having noticeable symptoms even before my nine hour flight home and the hot water might have felt good. There was another passenger in the lounge who appeared to be confined to a wheelchair when I was there, reinforcing my feeling that taking an unnecessary shower would be a bit selfish.

The standard shower room looked reasonably spacious for my purposes, but it didn’t have a safety hand rail. With a knee acting up that day, it didn’t seem worth taking a risk.

Fortunately, it was neither a blazing heat wave such as I suffered in London, nor a double digit hours layover like my time in Dallas, so foregoing a test of the 51st & Green shower facilities an hour after I’d left my Irish hotel was no real sacrifice, except to my ability to share the experience with readers here. There are few reviews of this particular shower, but most USA bound flights from Ireland leave in the morning, so perhaps the demand is simply low, and a single stall is adequate.

The 51st & Green Lounge was lovely, very new, and everything else was to a high standard, though, leading me to expect the showers would measure up.

*Though the shower drained properly and no water spilled out of the enclosure or anywhere near my luggage, I would advise travelers to always assume the worst with unknown plumbing and place all belongings somewhere high and dry, just in case.

I thought I was going to see a man laden with bags die in front of me on the London Underground. Ugh!