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.

Post-COVID, I’ll remember NCL, Delta & Alaska Airlines put safety first

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) Holdings announced on May 7th that, if Florida’s government holds to its misguided law preventing private businesses from enforcing vaccine compliance, NCL will take all of its sailings to other ports outside that state. For a Miami-based company, that’s a pretty bold promise.

While my sun-loathing, beach-avoiding tendencies made Florida’s appeal a mystery to me in the past, its near total lack of sensible governance paints it as a positively terrifying “vacation” destination today. I’m hardly the only one to notice Governor DeSantis’ lunatic anti-corporate stance on this question, either.

I want to commend NCL for making a rational commitment to protect passenger safety even as the pandemic wanes. I haven’t cruised with Norwegian yet, but taking a firm line on this issue after a year of unprecedented collapse in the travel industry gives me a powerful reason to consider them more seriously in the future.2012 Carnival cruise Saint John NB Canada - 3

I’ve only taken a handful of cruises, having traveled twice with Crystal Cruises, once on Holland America Line, and once with Carnival. I’m delighted that Crystal has also adopted a 100% vaccinated passenger policy at this time.

At the same time, allow me to commend Delta for being the airline which blocked middle seats longer than any other major U.S. carrier. Delta ended that policy on May 1, 2021.

By contrast, American Airlines decided after just a couple of months in 2020 (April to June) that cramming passengers three abreast on flights of any duration—while an airborne virus sickened tens of thousands per day in a way science did not yet clearly understand—was sound policy.

AA made this choice well before the second surge of cases and deaths in the United States.AA entertainment welcome screen above pocket with A321S safety card visible

You can bet that Delta has moved up on the list of airlines I’ll choose to fly with going forward.

The day I got my first vaccine jab, I booked tickets home to see my dad for Christmas 2021.

I noticed when Alaska Airlines made the news for banning Alaska state Senator Lora Reinbold. The dis-Honorable Senator Reinbold repeatedly ignored staff instructions, violating a mask order designed to protect her fellow passengers.

Most of those good people were likely Reinbold’s constituents, yet she couldn’t be bothered to don a few square inches of cloth to reduce the risk of infecting them all with a contagious disease. The senator couldn’t know if any those in her vicinity were high risk; she simply didn’t care more about human life than she did political posturing.Tail of Alaska plane visible on tarmac through airport terminal window

I’m incredibly appreciative that Alaska Airlines chose to institute a face covering policy even before the United States federal government implemented its own mandate. I’m proud to say that Alaska is the airline with which I’ve had elite status for the greatest number of years.

I’m gratified that I’ve regularly paid a premium for flights with this airline that chose to do the right thing, even when doing so cost them the business of customers who couldn’t—wouldn’t—be bothered to take any small measure to respect others.

It’s interesting to me that I’ve long felt that customer service was better on Alaska and Delta than on other domestic airlines, even as frequent fliers began complaining bitterly about changes in the latter’s SkyMiles Frequent Flyer program devaluing their points. Personally, I prefer good service and more stringent safety protocols to a higher return paid in free trips.

This post is the product of a lot of noticing, over the course of a pandemic, which big companies took specific kinds of thoughtful action, and how often those actions corresponded with my previous impression of a given corporation. Trader Joe’s and American Airlines disappointed me; Delta, Alaska, and NCL have earned a great deal more of my esteem.

I have a long memory, and I’m the kind of traveler happy to pay a premium to support my values. Here’s hoping some pandemic-era changes in the aviation industry remain, and that the skies stay a little friendlier in the future.

COVID vaccination: appointment & liberation

Add me to the ranks of the partially vaccinated in America. Today, I received dose one of two of the COVID-19 vaccine available at a location convenient to my suburban home. Within three miles, which is “reasonably close” even by my auto-phobic standards.

Redacted official CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Record CardMy state redefined its list of eligible health conditions the day before my turn would have been due anyway. I don’t believe that the state knew* I went from one to two eligible conditions overnight—the system asked one to confirm only from the original list of “certain medical conditions” as I pre-registered—but that change moved me up one “priority group” within the current phase of eligible citizens.

I pre-registered with the state’s mass vaccination system on Sunday, receiving notification three days later that my chance at snagging an appointment would open up within 24 hours. I was offered a turn to register for a mass vaccination site appointment at 09:49 on Thursday. I had until Friday at noon to take advantage of the option.

As it turns out, the state system only offered me appointments over 20 miles away. Given my continuing ability to shelter at home, I almost left it at that, planning to wait for my next invitation and hope it would be for a local site. Our state doesn’t have truly centralizing vaccination booking, however; the state system only books one in to seven major centers churning out thousands of doses per day.

I tried “the other way” of booking Thursday evening, i.e., last night. A local physician’s group had three appointments open for this morning. I took that as a sign that it really was my turn to book. Screen shot of COVID vaccine appointments confirmed at CVS PharmacySomeone else I know with one underlying medical condition was able to book via the CVS Pharmacy website. That screen grab makes a prettier picture than the black and white, all text shot from the doctor’s office where I went, so here is a CVS vaccine jab appointment confirmation. In both cases, the second, follow up appointment was automatically scheduled by the computer for the correct (3-4 week) wait after dose one, but the doctor’s office only shared my next appointment time with me after I’d arrived in person.

To be honest, I agonized a bit over whether it was really fair for me to take my place in line for the shot. There are many people who are more exposed than I am due to their working or living conditions. There are many people older, sicker, and at greater risk of dying from COVID-19 than I am. Those realities were reflected, however—if, perhaps imperfectly—by the state’s eligibility phase system.

I did not wangle, finagle, lie, cheat, or even fudge to make my appointment. I read and re-read the eligibility criteria, looking for any reason to find against the evidence that my government thinks I’m at higher than average risk from COVID.

I’m grateful to the reporting I’ve read in a variety of newspapers and magazines about the ethical considerations of “taking a shot from someone who needs it more.” The consensus is: if you meet the qualifications for the shot for which you’re signing up, it is your turn, and it is just and right to take it. To date, about a quarter of adults in my state have had their first shot, and closer to one third are fully immunized, similar to the national average.

No amount of logic erases the tendency to worry from those of us who are anxious, but I do fret less when I can ease the factual side of the equation. My worries on this issue are also alleviated by living with my frail, elderly mother-in-law. Her history of reacting to multiple vaccines and medications combined with a specific diagnosis she’s dealing with now makes her vaccination perhaps more risky than doing nothing.

It helps that my father-in-law has been fully vaccinated for awhile, reducing the threat that her closest companion could unwittingly expose her to the virus, but the kids’ gradual return to public life is already beginning. We’re scheduling dental cleanings again after a year of neglect, and some of DS1’s summer courses seem likely to include in person labs. We hope that DS2 will be get to finish out the year back with his friends at school.

With case rates coming down and vaccination ramping up, it no longer feels fully fair to expect my kids to give up all outside activities due to the adults’ choice to live in a multi-generational household. Even my introvert has confessed to missing the act of going somewhere to attend a class; my extrovert seems quite eager to start at a bigger, busier, fully “in person” school next fall.

Alaska Air account view showing trips in December 2021It may have been premature, but one of the first things I did, after booking my vaccine appointment, was to jump right onto Alaska Airlines’ website. I booked tickets—based upon DS2’s new school calendar—for us to spend Christmas 2021 with my dad in the state where I grew up.

Dad’s latest favorite joke is that he’ll “be immortal in just x more days,” where x stands for his distance from reaching a full two weeks after his second dose of the Moderna vaccine.

“I’m not sure that’s quite the right word, Dad,” I tease him. “Maybe don’t take up skydiving.”

“I-m-m… something!” he responds. “I’m pretty sure they said immortal.”

Somehow, he didn’t appreciate it when I suggested the word he was looking for could be “immature!” Not at his age, he retorts.

God and the pandemic willing, we will be heading west to see Dad over the summer, but I’m not quite ready to book an airline ticket for June just yet.

December, though?

I’ve got high hopes for December. And now I’ve got some airline tickets to go with them.

* I did add a comment to my submission stating that I was unclear whether to use their provided list vs. the new one the governor had just announced. It is possible that a human “corrected” my data after the fact, nudging me closer to the head of the line. I suspect that this comment box exists primarily to help the software developers improve the system, however. A newspaper article I read today suggests to me that availability is simply opening up across my state.

Here I must acknowledging that those rates have remained stubbornly higher than everyone had hoped due to the emerging COVID-19 variants, and that cases are currently kind of level in our own community. I speak more to the overall trend from the winter peak. We remain a “more cautious than average” household, I believe, even with 1/6 of our number fully immunized and 1/6 of us partially so.

The fact that many airlines have moved to discontinue the practice of charging exorbitant change fees to modify tickets helped tremendously in my decision to book now.