PDX Airport Guide

How Has PDX Held On to the Title of the Nation’s Best Airport for Seven Years Running?

Short answer: by becoming the city it serves.

By Margaret Seiler September 23, 2019 Published in the October 2019 issue of Portland Monthly

Imagine a quaint town of around 10,000 people, with about 20 million visitors passing through each year. There’s a movie theater, art galleries, a barbershop, a bookstore, and even buskers, playing music for tips to passersby. This town has its own police, fire, and 911 dispatch, a National Guard base, chichi suburbs (the private Atlantic Aviation terminal), and hinterlands (all those golf courses). And like many places growing in popularity, it has space shortages, causing its leaders to look for ways to grow both up and out.

Welcome to PDX. Not Portland, the metropolis of around 650,000, but the airport whose three-letter FAA code is as much a nickname for the place it serves as Stumptown or Rip City. Opened in 1940 and now seeing about 200,000 flights and nearly 280,000 tons of freight per year, Portland International Airport is about to get some of its biggest additions yet: a Concourse E extension under construction on its north side and a dramatic replacement for Concourses A and B about to begin on its south. Around 2023, it will be the main terminal’s turn for big renovations. There will be room for more gates and more flights (Southwest will anchor the new Concourse E, while the A-B improvements will mostly serve Alaska/Horizon passengers), but also more of the curated retail that’s helped PDX hold the title of Travel & Leisure’s best US airport the past seven years in a row.

The Port of Portland has been focused on PDX’s, well, Portlandness, since the 1980s, when it made the unusual decision to manage concessions in-house—a system that’s led the airport to become a legit showcase for local brands. 

“They just want true Portland out there,” says Brianne Mees, cofounder and co-CEO of indie record label and boutique Tender Loving Empire, which has had a shop on Concourse D since 2017 and will open a second in Concourse E next summer. “They want you to land or fly out of the Portland airport and experience all the things Portlanders love about Portland.”

The local love extends beyond the city limits: PDX also hosts locations of Mo’s Seafood and Chowder (Newport), Café Yumm (Eugene), Deschutes Brewing (Bend), and Beaches (Vancouver). When the concourse renovations are complete, in addition to newly included Portland businesses (among them Screen Door and Good Coffee) there are plans for a bar called Juliett, named for the J in the NATO phonetic alphabet and set to have a women-in-aviation theme, from the local group behind Century, the Bye and Bye, and the Sweet Hereafter. Plus, a nod to the coast is also in the works with a Tillamook Creamery restaurant. (The menu is still shaking out, but there will be curds. We repeat: there will be curds.)

There are, of course, national chains at the airport (McDonald’s, Starbucks), and many of the “local” restaurants are run by other companies with experience in airport service that are essentially licensing a brand. (Screen Door, for example, has partnered with the same company that runs the airport Tamale Boy; the brewpubs and Kenny & Zuke’s share a different operating partner.) But the Port of Portland has been aggressive about creating a sense of place, the opposite of the overpriced Hudson News/Auntie Anne’s hellscape in so many other American airports.

“If you’re traveling in Portland, this is kind of your first impression,” says Kama Simonds, public information officer for the Port’s aviation division. The agency, which manages three area airports (see p. 59) as well as four river terminals, works closely with tourism agencies Travel Portland and Travel Oregon. To add yet another layer, the Port taps local luminaries, from Blazer star Damian Lillard to singer Storm Large, to record PDX’s welcome messages and announcements. “We’re in talks to get a Thorn!” an excited Simonds said this summer.

For Portlanders, it can feel good to have Damian Lillard’s voice in your ear, and to support a local business with an airport purchase. With PDX’s street pricing policy—which mandates every pint of beer, greeting card, T-shirt, and bagel must cost the same at the airport as it does at a company’s non-airport locations—shoppers don’t feel like they’re getting gouged. (The Port’s concession team even does audits to make sure no one’s being charged extra.) Throw in the lack of a sales tax, and out-of-state travelers are also eager to get in on the action.

For retailers, though, running an airport store is nothing like running a shop in town. First, there’s the money. “It’s way more expensive to open a store at the airport than it is on the street,” Mees says, citing the Port’s specialized fire and electrical codes, materials regulations, and security deposit, plus the off-hours pay for contractors to work on a store’s build-out in the middle of the night. Businesses also have to find employees ready to be on-site by 4 or 5 a.m., and restaurants must offer breakfast, even if their street locations don’t.

“There was a huge learning curve,” says Mees, adding that Tender Loving Empire’s second airport location will be easier to open than its first. “Now we know all the Port rules and regulations, how to get people badged [to fast-track through security], and how to get product there.”

But Mees says the airport experience has been more than worth it for advancing Tender Loving Empire’s core mission: “We have figured out over the years that some of the best ways that we can support the creative community in Portland are to market to tourists. There’s no better way to get in front of tourists—and locals, really. [They] all go to the airport.”

Top photo: Courtesy Charles Leutwiler/Alamy Stock Photo

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