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.

Trampoline exercise to ease chronic pain & stiffness

A mini trampoline probably won’t solve your chronic pain issues. My JumpSport 550fi rebounder* has not cured my autoimmune disease, nor did I expect it to. What it has done is offer me is an opportunity to rise up from my seat and move in a way that doesn’t aggravate my sensitive joints.Hardback library book on JumpSport fitness trampoline to show relative size

JumpSport 550fi specs

I ordered my fitness trampoline from Costco.com and received it in mid-July, 2020. I believe the JumpSport 550fi model sold by Costco is simply the manufacturer’s 550f model with the optional Handlebar accessory included.

Here are the specs if you’re interested in the same rebounder I have:JumpSport 550f/fi specs including price, size, weight

My JumpSport 550fi came with two workout DVDs and a one year subscription for additional streaming content. The former was at an intensity too high for someone with my health issues, and I never attempted to access the latter. Watching the instructor led exercises on the disc was helpful for getting ideas about how I might adapt moves to my own level, however.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m “bouncing my way to fitness,” but I am getting up off my backside and moving vigorously more often than I did without the trampoline. When even common, everyday tasks present you with physical challenges, this feels like a big win!

Recent studies suggest that even very sedentary people gain massive improvements in health and longevity from fairly small amounts of exercise. My personal goal is to always—every day, no matter how bad I feel—get my blood pumping on purpose for at least ten minutes. During pandemic lockdown, my fitness trampoline has become a key component in achieving that.

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One viciously toothed object is key to conquering the kitchen with arthritis

If my parents hadn’t bought a dowdy condo with an out of date kitchen configured for an elderly lady, I never would have discovered the single most useful object that empowers me to help myself to prepare food with my arthritic hands.

V shaped wooden jar opener screwed to bottom of upper cabinetIt’s a jar opener with a double row of teeth that might put a very small shark to shame. I found a modern one called a Gator Gripper online at SMC Woodworking in 2018. At $16.95 + shipping, I rate it a great bargain after many months of use.

There’s no brand name on my parents’ original jar opener, but it was screwed into dark brown stained cabinetry circa 1970. It could have been made by a friend or it might be a commercially manufactured object. The previous owner of the condo lived there for decades and the unit wasn’t sold until after her death. I’m just grateful that the lady bought this magic gripper because it makes any screw top a breeze to open, regardless of hand strength or manual dexterity.

Unless weakness of the hand makes it necessary for one to hold a jar with both, most people can easily open jars single-handedly with the Gator Gripper. Better yet, its design makes tiny lids as easy as large ones to grip. I’ve opened vitamin and nail polish bottles with this thing as well as water bottles, sauce jars, and home-canned mason jars. It works equally well gripping plastic and metal tops.

Opening bottles and jars safely before I remembered the probable burst of pain with which my hands would react was one of the longest lessons it took me to learn* when I developed autoimmune arthritis. I might be feeling fairly well, but the grip and squeeze and twist of a sealed jar almost always leads to lightening bolts of shock up multiple fingers.

Coffee bottle, Chameleon Cold Brew brand

Coffee trapped inside a glass prison!

Coffee bottle with screw top wedged into jar opener’s gripping teeth

The fight for liquid freedom!

Coffee bottle with lid off

Success for coffee lovers everywhere… in my kitchen

My husband has a more equivocal relationship with the jar opener than I do, though he’s the one that actually ordered the Gator Gripper for me. Now that one lives in our kitchen, he has trust issues. DH recognizes that I prefer being able do things for myself, and that being unable to get past a step as trivial as “open the jar” when cooking is demoralizing.

Then again, the jar opener does employ very sharp teeth to do its job, and DH is something of a pessimist. The design of the product is an open, inviting v-shape. It hangs, welcoming, beneath the upper cupboard near the fridge where I usually stand when I’m preparing food.

I see the jar opener as welcoming my tightly shut twist-off; DH sees it as welcoming unsuspecting fingers, hungry for human blood.

“Someone could cut himself,” my husband says doubtfully. “There’s nothing to prevent you from sticking your hand in there and slicing open a finger.”

It’s true. This is a grown up’s kitchen implement. Then again, I see very few of my visitors patting or probing the undersides of my upper cabinets when in my kitchen.

The Gator Gripper’s position more than four feet above the floor and over a countertop workbench is enough to ease my mind that visiting toddlers are unlikely victims. My own kids are plenty tall enough to reach it, but also plenty mature enough to understand that sawtoothed blades and phalanges don’t mix.

Large knife block full of Cutco knives

Warning: Knives are not toys

I figure, in a kitchen with a knife rack in plain sight, the jar opener represents only a minimal additional risk.

My parents sold their condo and moved back into a house when my mother couldn’t make the adjustment to a downsized life. They unscrewed that jar opener and brought it with them to their new home, however, and I’m grateful that they did.

There are minor renovations I would enjoy making in my own kitchen, but I can’t imagine any scenario in which I’d live without my jar opener going forward, save, perhaps, for the abolishment of all screwtops by executive order.

And, even then, I’d probably keep my trusty Gator Gripper tucked away under that cabinet just in case. After all, someone could show up with contraband. Prohibition taught us that plenty of bottles make their way around even after the most teetotaling fiat.

*The other contender for “why can’t I make this adjustment?” was opening heavy commercial doors. I’ve gotten much, much better and trained myself to always use the power/disabled access button where available, and I almost always remember to turn around and push doors with my back instead of using my hands and wrists now, but making this a habit took several years.

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!

Chronic illness stinks, but I still opt for gratitude

I woke up this morning and realized:

Yesterday was the first day in months during which I hadn’t needed any* pain medication!

Bottle of pain pillsToday, then, it is perhaps “too easy” for me to write about living with a sense of gratitude in spite of the burdens of chronic illness.

You might assume I’m just having a great day, or that I’m naturally perky.

It is fair to describe me as fundamentally optimistic, but perky? Not so much. I’m decidedly prone to uncontrollable outbursts of snark and cynical enough to doubt the motivations of others.

This “less pain” holiday certainly does, however, make it easier for me to reflect upon the gifts I’ve gained from living with chronic illness.

Most importantly, my pain and physical limitations have made me more empathetic. I’m a better person for the suffering. That’s something, anyway!

I am now more likely to give someone else the benefit of the doubt in frustrating situations. I have more patience for slow movers and “inconvenient” people in my way. I’m far more generous with my tolerance.

Pain is also teaching me to have patience with myself. This is true not just when I need physical accommodations like using the buttons to open powered doors or taking the handicapped stall lest I find myself perched and suddenly realize the knees won’t raise me back up without an assist from a sturdy grab bar.

Bathroom fitted with accommodations for physical disabilitiesGiving myself permission to make use of aids for physical disability also seems to rub off on those nasty tendencies toward negative self talk that can be so undermining to one’s psyche. If I’m worth accommodating when my body fails me, why, suddenly, I can forgive myself for a day’s lapse in will power or my other myriad and sundry imperfections.

I wouldn’t wish a life interrupted by chronic pain or ongoing illness on anyone. Then again, I wouldn’t change anything about my own history if a genie popped out of a lamp and gave me the option.

I’m grateful for the life I have, warts and all. It would be wonderful to find a cure for what ails me, but I’m thankful for the lessons from the illness in the meantime.

Wall art stating “Give thanks”Being sick is beyond my control. Choosing to live my life with gratitude is up to me.

*With the exception of the topical prescription NSAID that eases my most finicky—and much used!—joints in the fingers and wrists, I suppose I should add. A day completely without pain is, sadly, no longer something I ever seem to have.

I’ve had such frustrations with the side effects of opioids and the synthetic alternatives that I have a truly love-hate relationship with them. Taking these pills does make the pain a little more bearable on a bad day, but nothing actually stops it completely when it is bad. Oh yes, and then the drugs screw up my sleep which can create its own vicious circle because fatigue increases my pain!

There is lots of room for improvement in medication for the management of chronic pain.