At 6:25 a.m. Wednesday morning, July 15, the first flight departed from Portland International Airport’s new Concourse E gates, a Southwest flight to Oakland. Instead of the type of grand party that sent off Concourse A last year, the pandemic-era fanfare for this years-long construction project was mostly limited to a balloon artist’s Instagram takeover and some Southwest giveaways.
With traffic around 27 percent of normal for this time of year, according to the Port of Portland, PDX isn’t quite the ghost town it was in April (when the number of travelers going through the airport dipped to 5 percent of the usual). But those catching a Southwest flight out of the six new gates at the end of Concourse E can still feel like they have the place to themselves, spreading out at the distanced tables under artist Jacob Hashimoto’s giant kite mobiles or in the comfy chairs by the east-facing window looking out at Mount Hood.
“I heard one passenger say, ‘Oh my gosh, my view is back!’” says the Port of Portland’s Kama Simonds, who then watched the man race to have a look at the mountain, which for the past two years has been hidden by a giant wall just past E’s United gates and Hopworks pub.
That view will soon be enjoyed by patrons of Juliett, an aviation-themed bar at the end of the concourse from Portland’s Lightning Bar Collective (Century, the Bye and Bye), but Juliett is one of several storefronts planned for the new gates that have yet to open. Simonds said the port couldn’t expect businesses to stick to their contract timelines during the pandemic. The places that are open—including Calliope (a gift-shop offshoot of clog-and-clothing PDX store CC McKenzie) and Your Northwest Travel Mart (which has a large display of masks and disinfectant wipes but is still selling mostly water and snacks, a cashier said)—have limited hours depending on when flights are going out. While most retail operating at PDX must agree to be open from very early in the morning to late at night, the Port of Portland hasn’t been enforcing those requirements, allowing places to adjust hours with the fluctuating flight schedule.
The concourse extension is home to the only Tillamook Creamery shop outside of Tillamook itself, an early step in a plan for total world domination (actually, the marketing rep just said they’re aiming to go national, but please allow us a moment to contemplate a new world order based on sharp cheddar).
“We’ll see 6 million people out of this concourse when we return to normalcy,” says Mohammed Ali, Tillamook’s director of brand experience, pointing to the potential to hook travelers from elsewhere on its grilled cheese sandwiches, classic mac, and fried cheese curds. Bagged curds are available in the grab-and-go section, and Ali says they’re looking into making them available for curbside pickup through the At Your Gate app, meaning local curd addicts could get their fix with a drive to the airport instead of a trek to the coastal creamery.
Amid all the new, there’s currently a dose of the old in Concourse E: a patch of pristine ’80s-era PDX airport carpet. Simonds says it won’t stay there—a coffee kiosk will soon be setting up shop under one of Hashimoto’s art installations—but for now travelers can grab a shoe selfie and pretend it’s pre-2016.