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.

Take advantage of services offered: treat yourself like a friend

Using myself as an object lesson once again, I’ll remind anyone with a less than perfectly functioning self to make use of the services that are offered to you. More than that, be proactive, and request what you need.

It’s amazing how many ways there are to make the trials of modern travel easier, but also amazing how loathe some of us can be to ask for help.

Today’s case in point: having a difficult joint act up while waiting in the Dublin Airport 51st & Green airside (past security) Lounge. This is a lovely, bright airport lounge. There are quite a few worse places to pass a few hours. Its design, meant to evoke the Neolithic tomb Newgrange, immediately made both myself and my husband think of 2001: A Space Odyssey when we (on separate occasions) entered.

Evocative–and attractive–as the long, white entry corridor is, it’s enough to strike fear into the heart (or knee, foot, hip) of an individual struggling to walk without pain. The toilets are 2/3 of the way down, back by the reception desk. Sigh.

I thought about going to ask for a wheelchair escort when the pain struck, then sat down, determined to ignore yet another annoying infirmity. Then I had this thought: if my husband were here, he would demand help for me, because he thinks I deserve it. And he’s right!

If I were watching a loved one struggle with pain, even mild pain, I would seek help, and I would insist s/he make use of it. Why should I do any less for myself?

Am I suggesting that I’m the center of the Universe, that everything revolves around me and my needs? Well, no. But I would argue that treating myself as less than I would a friend or casual acquaintance isn’t brave or valiant, it’s unloving and unwise.

Self advocacy doesn’t equate to self indulgence.

Accessibility notes by a visitor to Iceland’s awesome public pools with hints for proper locker room & swim protocol

Icelanders expect you to follow the letter of their law when going for a swim: wash, naked, with soap before entering a public pool or hot tub.

I’m shocked by how many Americans post comments about washing first not being required at home. Actually, at my local YMCA in New England, a sign clearly states that “soap showers are required” before entering the pool.

It’s just that, at American pools, nobody enforces the law.

We have laws against jaywalking, too, but you’d never know it in most cities based upon enforcement.

Also, our instructional posters are plain English language ones without the helpful “red zone” graphics employed in Iceland.

Cell phone or camera use isn’t allowed in locker rooms thank God! so I’ll point you to others’ mysteriously captured photos for illustrations. Follow the links to pool etiquette articles, below.

Picture the typical men’s room sign “guy” infographic, then add big red circles glowing around head, armpits, groin, hands, and feet. Those are the parts it is mandatory to wash with soap before entering an Icelandic public swimming pool or hot tub.

I’m reinventing the wheel here, but it bears repeating again! since every Icelander seems to know that Americans (and Brits) arrive unprepared for proper Icelandic pool protocol. I read about a dozen “how to use a public pool in Iceland” posts myself, and yet, here I am reiterating much of the same advice.

IHeartReykjavik.net posted my favorite for average travelers (make sure to read some of the 133+ comments); IcelandWithKids.com is also very thorough, especially with information for families and parents traveling with children.

Those posts helped me, so I hope to offer the same to another reader. Good travelers respect the places that they visit by following the rules.

Access for visitors with mild physical impairments to Icelandic pools

Another, perhaps less common, thing I want to address is accessibility in Icelandic public pool locker rooms.

I did find one blogger who writes about access from the perspective of a wheelchair user, but he only seemed to visit the swanky Blue Lagoon spa. For over $40 per person, it darn well better be fully accessible!

I was looking for an affordable, family-oriented experience more akin to what average Icelanders might enjoy with their own kids.

Also, my needs are far less intensive than those of a pool user who requires a lift (hoist) to access the water. I have arthritis and chronic pain due to an autoimmune condition. My accessibility needs are variable, but often minimal, and most relate to twisting and pushing with the hands.

Sometimes, however, hip or knee joint stiffness makes it hard for me to reach my own feet. Heck, I couldn’t get my arms high enough overhead (shoulder stiffness) for the requisite TSA scan when I departed from Boston the night before I visited my first Icelandic pool.

Some days, aside from morning stiffness in my fingers, I bend like a healthy person; other days, not so much. This is a big part of what drew me to the famous geothermal hot pots of Iceland during even a brief stopover.

When my joints are stiff, I’m also more prone to balance issues and potentially falling. My limbs don’t always respond the way I’m expecting to the commands sent from my brain.

I had questions before my first visit to a public pool in Iceland to which I couldn’t find answers online. I’ll try to enlighten those of you with similar concerns according to my own experience as an English speaking tourist with about two weeks’ experience in that country.

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Business Premier eases chronic pain on 13 hour Air New Zealand long haul flight: Part 1 (OneUp upgrade bid win)

On the economics of getting into business class for members of the 99% with chronic pain: how I did it for 37% of the paid fare with an upgrade bid, and why every penny was totally worth it.

I didn’t know until I arrived at LAX for my 13 hour flight from the USA to Auckland that my bid for upgrade to business class had been accepted. Air New Zealand might surprise you with such information at the very last minute. Luckily, this is the best kind of surprise.

I am a frequent flier in US domestic economy who occasionally splurges or upgrades with miles/status to first class. I also live with an autoimmune disease and chronic pain.

In spite of this, I continue to indulge my love of travel as often as I can. Now, however, I must sometimes make adjustments to accommodate my body’s varying demands.

What follows is my assessment of a very long haul flight in the Business Premier cabin. I’ll try to specifically address the experience of a traveler with chronic pain.

While I’ve found a plethora of reviews sharing the opinions of healthy business and luxury flyers, my own sometimes odd and very specific wonderings are rarely addressed.

Air NZ awards upgrade bids up to the last minute

Last year’s Swiss International Airlines (SWISS) upgrade from economy to SWISS Business was awarded several days before my flight. SWISS may even have provided a full week’s notice.

This time, I received a “too bad, you lost” email from Air New Zealand in the days before my trip. I took off from an intermediate stop at PDX with no knowledge of the highly beneficial change of plans.

Try to imagine my delight upon receiving a text message of congratulations for having my OneUp Business Premier upgrade bid accepted by Air New Zealand at the last minute. I learned of it as my Alaska flight touched down in Los Angeles and I resumed cellular connection to the world.

Having chatted with my nearest seatmate about our respective travels during lunch on Alaska 568, I couldn’t help but turn to her to share news of my good fortune:

“I just got the upgrade from Premium Economy to Business Premier for the long flight to New Zealand!” I crowed

“That’s great!” She replied. “Now your husband won’t have to feel guilty or to share his better seat.”

Air NZ Business Premier pix - airport espresso

It was reason for both DH and myself to celebrate, indeed. He is a gentleman, and he worries about me.

Of course, a man who will wait in line to buy an espresso for his tired wife in a busy airport even though he thinks caffeine is a pernicious addiction like heroin that shouldn’t be catered to or socially acceptable will always give his seat up to a lady.

To be crystal clear, however, on our return, when we were seated in different classes of service, I never did ask him to shove over or swap with me. I spent 13 hours in Premium Economy flying AKL-LAX towards home. I’ll add a link here to my post on the subject once I’ve finished writing it.

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Managing chronic pain on the 12+ hour flight to New Zealand

Since developing chronic pain that accompanies an autoimmune condition, I’ve continued to indulge my love of travel, but learned to adapt my bookings and my belongings to minimize pain and maximize comfort.

 

Flights of six hours or so are regular occurrences for me and my family. I’ve had a couple of very painful trips of this duration, but, more typically, I can tolerate them by adjusting my medication slightly and employing a few aids such as wrist braces, inflatable cushions, and hot water bottles.

 

This winter, I faced the longest single flight I’ve ever taken: 12 hours and 40 minutes just for one leg from Los Angeles, CA to Auckland, New Zealand. The combination of traversing the United States from our New England home (6.5 hours), crossing the Pacific (12.7 hours), then connecting to our final destination of Christchurch, NZ on the South Island (1.4 hours) made for a total time in the air of 20.5 hours.

Of course, one must also add to that total the requisite airport waiting time required by international flight connections, customs, security, and the necessity of allowing adequate buffers in case of delays. At least two full days of my calendar were bound to be eaten up by this voyage in each direction.

After considering many options, I elected to travel in two distinct stages for both directions of travel. This meant parting ways with my husband entirely for the domestic portion of our trip. His schedule doesn’t allow for an unnecessary day spent in transit where tighter connections are possible.†

I was away from home for a total of fourteen days; DH, by taking his domestic and international flights serially on the way out—and heading home on a red eye straight off the international leg—traveled for twelve days.

Though this post isn’t really meant to be a trip report, it must be said: even two weeks is barely adequate for visiting the antipodes. If you can squeeze more days out of your schedule, use them for a trip of this magnitude.

New Zealand is awesome, and well worth every hard won vacation day.

My itinerary outbound:

BOS-PDX on Alaska Air 33, Saturday 16:20-20:10

Three night stay with family in the Pacific NW

PDX-LAX on Alaska Air 568, Tuesday 10:50-13:22

LAX-AKL on Air New Zealand 5, Tuesday 21:40-Thursday 07:20*

AKL-CHC on Air New Zealand 527, Thursday 09:00-10:20

My itinerary for the return:

CHC-AKL on Air New Zealand 574, Friday 20:00-21:20

AKL-LAX on Air New Zealand 2, Friday 22:50-13:35**

Overnight hotel stay at the Crown Plaza LAX

LAX-BOS on Virgin America flight 1360, Saturday 07:05-15:34

Itinerary adaptations to reduce pain

I’ll repeat what I feel was the single most important adaptation I made to my itinerary to accommodate my autoimmune condition and its symptoms: I took extra time.

Travel. Stop. Recover. Repeat.

Heading west, I took advantage of family who live near the Portland airport who don’t seem to mind my visits, spending three nights at their home. This sleepover gave me time to recover from the initial cross country flight and ease my body’s adjustment to a change of three time zones.

NZ Crowne Plaza LAX hotel room - 1Upon arrival in New Zealand, I had already acclimated from the Eastern to Pacific zone (USA West Coast) which represents half of the total time shock. Though the flight is lo-o-o-o-ong, most of the travel between California and New Zealand is in a southerly direction. You only drop three more time zones on that 12 hour flight.

Heading west is also usually less difficult in terms of jet lag.

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