Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

3 Day Trip To Portland, Oregon Proves To Be Fine & Memorable

Leaving Sunday afternoon from Raleigh on American Airlines, I was relieved to be upgraded on both flights to Portland, Oregon, connecting through Chicago. After a 3 hour layover at O’Hare, where I was able to work productively in AA’s big Admirals Club, I rushed to gate H17 Sunday night for my 8:20 PM departure to PDX. My hurry was motivated by advice from the Admirals Club staff that the inbound aircraft was there and that boarding would shortly commence: Hurry, hurry!

Except that the Admirals Club staff was dead wrong. Not only was there no airplane, but a delayed flight to Tucson was being boarded chaotically at gate H17, with lots of stand-bys and denied boarding passengers hanging around for their hotel vouchers, AA bribe money, and new tickets for the next day.

The bedlam was such that I could barely make my way to the desk to ask if I was at the right gate. It was already almost 8:00 PM, and my plane was scheduled to leave at 8:20 PM. Furthermore, AA’s flight info screens throughout O’Hare were showing my Portland flight at gate H17 and dead on time.

A harried but courteous AA gate agent confirmed that the Portland flight “is next at this gate” but that the Portland airplane would have to be “towed to the gate from the hangar after the Tucson flight pushes back.”

When? I asked. “Don’t know,” she said, so obviously exasperated that I left her alone, and she went back to patiently explaining to gullible twenty-somethings how to get a courtesy bus to the gorgeous and swanky O’Hare Ramada where AA had generously booked them rooms. I pitied them.

Another pointless airline ordeal, I sighed to myself, and settled into a practiced Zen-like introspection to insulate me from the madding crowds and uncertain delay.

Why is it, I often wonder, that airline information systems get it so wrong?

Why would Admirals Club agents tell me for 3 hours that an inbound aircraft would make up my Portland flight and that it was on time when in fact the aircraft was towed over from storage and the flight was late?

Such mysteries are endemic to the industry. Agents and screens encourage us to scurry to our gates, but once there, reality is something else again. Even there the local gate agents working the flights, as in this case, don’t know how events will unfold. The unknown and unknowable, another anomaly of this screwy industry.

We left an hour late, and arrived to Portland just before midnight instead of the 10:50 PM PT scheduled time, but the AA in-flight personnel were so kind that I relaxed and slept after reading and annotating just over 300 pages of notes for my client.

Overnight was spent at the Hilton Garden Inn at the airport, where the staff welcomed me as if I was a regular guest instead of the reality (my first stay ever). It was a typical Hilton GI, and its predictability was reassuring and relaxing. The wireless Internet actually worked; I caught a snippet of Bill Maher on HBO before drifting off to sleep, and I managed to be fairly alert for my 6:30 AM conference call Monday. Afterwards I enjoyed a really good hot breakfast with local yogurt. All in all, Hilton sent me on my way rested and relaxed for my workday ahead. Oh, and the hotel was a reasonable $104 per night plus tax, too (AAA or AARP rate).

Good thing I started well, because traffic in civilized Portland is brutal, made worse by the incessant English-style drizzle. But I sure enjoyed the big fir trees and the rolling landscape.

Back at PDX the next night I was unable to get a nonsmoking room at the Hilton GI again, so I booked a room at the nearby airport Embassy Suites instead. More expensive per night at $154 plus tax plus $9.95 for Internet, it was nonetheless another relaxing experience. The room was clean and well-maintained, and the staff was universally nice and well-informed. I also enjoyed bypassing the long check-in line to use the automated check-in machine. It spit out my key and credentials in under a minute, and I was on my way to my room. Also, the business center was complimentary, and I was able to print out my boarding passes for the next day’s flights.

Early next morning I was at the airport by 5:40 AM for my 7:40 AM departure. What a joy to come back to Portland, Oregon’s airport (PDX) after a ten year absence and find it better than ever!

It was always a classy place, its interior spaces an open, airy Northwest fusion of Scandinavian blond woods, green and brown pastels, and faintly Asian styles that puts arriving passengers in the right mood for the area’s woodsy lifestyle and makes it hard for departing passengers to leave.

I had a marvelous breakfast at Gustav’s Pub & Grill on the C concourse, where the friendly Oregonian wait staff will bring you delicious German farmer’s Bierwurst or a host of other locally made sausages that beat anything I’ve ever had in an American airport restaurant.

Nearby Powell’s Books offers an extraordinary collection of Swiss-made Papyrus greeting cards for all occasions—and I DO mean ALL, as in Easter, Passover, St. Paddy’s Day, as well as the usual birthday and other occasions. The card racks are just outside the main store. Next to them is a rack of specially selected paperbacks with Powell’s Book staff comments rating each one.

Inside the store there is a thoughtful selection of hardcover and paperback books, along with a knowledgeable staff to offer reading recommendations to suit your taste. All in all, a very relaxing experience, and quite unexpected in most American airports (compare and contrast, for instance, the pedestrian Cincinnati airport retailers).

And did I say they are also friendly? Friendly seems to define the typical Oregonian. Something in the air and the lifestyle certainly seems to agree with them, and it rubs off.

I reluctantly left the book store and Gustav’s for my departure gate.

There is much else in the PDX retail area that’s out-of-the-ordinary for most airports: an Oregon specialties shop and a great children’s store are just two examples..

Once again I was upgraded on the longest flight leg, Portland-O’Hare. A billiard ball-shaped, walrus-mustachioed AA pilot upgraded at the last minute to seat 3F in front of me grumbled and groused that there was no place for his bag in the overhead compartments. Well, I thought, smiling, welcome to the real world, asswipe. It’s a little different from driving the plane, huh? Walrus God of the Sky, meet the schmucks who pay your salary—and shut up and sit down!

We enjoyed a surprisingly good and healthy breakfast snack (cereal, blueberries, banana) while I watched out my window at the gorgeous snow- and ice-covered Rockies pass beneath us in the clear sky below.

All in all, a great trip. I am always grateful for trips like these, even with minor annoyances and inconveniences like the O’Hare Never-Never Land at gate H17. Though the 25-mile crawl along I-205 back to the Portland airport was painful, the slow drag was punctuated by relatively polite Oegonian drivers and the grand Northwest scenery adjacent to the Columbia River Valley.

This was one of the great ones, a trip that I will conjure up in my memory next time one of the more typical travel disasters strikes. I just wish there are more of a balance—a yin for every yang—in my travel experiences. But I do treasure these rare fine excursions.


Blogger Dan said...

If you are lucky enough to have appointments downtown or anywhere near the lines, the Portland MAX light rail system is one of the best transit systems in the US. Catch it at the airport and avoid the horrible traffic.

2/23/2007 3:49 PM  

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