The New Aerotropolis

The New Aerotropolis Photos by | Jason Kaplan

Forget about the troubles facing the Port of Portland’s marine Terminal 6. Portland International Airport is flying high.


Quirky, lauded and well-loved, the Portland International Airport found its niche as an ambassador of the Portland brand early on. As the region grows in both size and reputation, the airport is also ramping up, adding nonstop domestic and international flights and prepping for $1 billion in expansions and improvements.

With marine Terminal 6 — the Port of Portland’s other transport hub — quiet, the airport is a welcome growth operation. More than other airports, experts say, PDX meets the demands of a local and a globalized economy, in which high value people and products move at gotta-be-there now speeds.

airport flatIllustration by | Joan McGuire

“PDX has always punched above its weight,” says John Kasarda, director of the Center for Air Commerce at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. “It has good connectivity, is well run and responds to community concerns.”

Actually, it’s hard to find an airport detractor, even when looking in the most obvious places. Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland, self-identifies as “a big critic of the Port of Portland.” His organization finds plenty of fault with marine terminal operations and Superfund plans to clean the Willamette River.

But the airport is another story.

“They’ve always been proactive and inclusive in their processes,” Sallinger says. “In general, they’re doing a great job.”

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The market indicators are certainly promising. PDX is the second fastest growing airport on the West Coast, accommodating 9% more passenger volume each year since 2014. Airlines have added more nonstop domestic flights and new international routes to London, Mexico and Iceland. Vince Granato, Port of Portland COO, credits this boost to the region’s economic success.

“Airports don’t drive growth,” he says. “Airports respond.”

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That response, in a networked, speed-driven economy, is critical.

“Aviation routes represent the physical embodiment of the digital world and airports are the routers,” Karsada says. As for the airports — they “are the nodes for time sensitive products and people.”

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If that’s the case, PDXNext, the billion-dollar upgrade package is on the right track. The program, funded by the airlines and revenue bonds, focuses on airport modernization, capacity enhancement, asset preservation and earthquake resiliency. The first piece, a $125 million terminal rebalancing project, is expected to be complete by the first quarter of 2020.

“Right now, two-thirds of travelers and three-quarters of the baggage goes through the south side,” Granato explains. (Blame most of that discrepancy on Southwest. While it accounts only for 19% of airport traffic, their Bags Fly Free policy encourages checked luggage.)

Rebalancing means building six new gates on the airport’s north side to accommodate Southwest. Alaska Airlines, which accounts for 42% of airport traffic overall, will spread out on Concourse C.

Terminal balancing will not disrupt the traveling public. The next project, terminal core redevelopment or TCORE, will. Currently in the funding stage, TCORE, which expands, seismically reinforces and completely reimagines the main terminal and ticketing counter, will be “impactful,” according to Granato.

Management will have to rethink how and where you check in, how you exit, how security will operate and so on.

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PDX hopes to quell frustrations with exhaustive outreach from their communications team, as well high-touch, real-time response from airport personnel — the 11,000 badged airport workers who have completed required online training programs and are eligible for all-star performer rewards.

“We have the best TSA in the nation because our local federal security director understands the customer experience we’re trying to cultivate,” Granato says.

Signage, tweets and a friendly face will be a common sight for the 52% of frequent flyers who depart from PDX four or more times a year. Business travel is up, one sign workers still value face-to-face meetings over Skyped conference calls. The increase in aviation traffic mirrors local economic trends, experts say.

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“We think of trade as the exchange of physical stuff, but growth in the metro area is in very high-value goods and services and the ability to export knowledge,” Joe Cortright, an economist and president of Impresa Consulting, told Oregon Business last year.

Another sign of the airport as symbol of the new global order: PDX is adjusting to its role as a local soapbox for hot button political issues. In response to spontaneous protests of President Trump’s immigration ban last January, the Port modified its free-speech policy. All protests now require a permit, and any gathering over 10 people will be held in the outer roadway, under the canopy. Permits are free and all are granted.

People and ideas are not the only exports out of PDX. Cargo flights are on the rise too. Granato admits that these routes are historically hard to maintain, “People care about airports and customer service. Boxes don’t.”

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But air shipping out of PDX pencils out well enough for Cathay Pacific to add a third, weekly nonstop freighter flight to Asia.

Cargo includes Nike Airsoles, Intel hardware, and high-value ag products like berries, cherries and crab. As far as exporting low-value ag, well, that remains a Terminal 6 problem. The airport may be the overachiever of the Port of Portland family, but even the golden child is not expected to move compressed hay, beans or peas. After several idle years, the Port recently retook management of T6 from ICTSI Oregon Inc.

The Port’s newly-named executive director, Curtis Robinhold, is meeting with industry stakeholders to divine what operations look like going forward.

Robinhold is also trying to export PDX’s record of environmental success to the world stage.

Against the backdrop of marine side and Portland Harbor Superfund site challenges, and despite the greenhouse gas emissions produced by 620 flights per day, the airport claims a strong environmental record.

It buys 100% renewable energy, is on track to reduce over 90% of waste and is nudging airline partners to move to a blended biofuel. Robinhold would readily sign up for a larger leadership role, joining states, counties, cities, and corporations committed to action post-Paris Accord.

He hopes to leverage the airport’s success on the world stage, picking up where exiting the Paris Accord left off.

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“There’s room for a larger leadership role for the Port here,” Robinhold says.

That makes Sallinger happy.

“The Port should step up, join Multnomah County and the city of Portland, and be a national and international leader against climate change,” he says. “This is a big opportunity for Robinhold to make his mark right off the bat.”

Of course, the opportunities for Robinhold, and the city, reach far beyond global-warming mitigation. The world is getting smaller, and Portland International Airport is getting bigger. All told, the conditions at PDX are ripe for takeoff.

This article is part of a larger story on Portland International Airport that appears in our July/August issue.

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