Gateway to Maine
Portland International Jetport gets an expansive new look.
- By: Edgar Allen Beem
"White pre-cast and black tinted windows could be Miami,” says Portland International Jetport director Paul Bradbury, standing in front of the old section of the airport terminal. “We are selling Portland and Maine.”
Just weeks before the scheduled October 2 opening of the Jetport’s twenty-two-month, $75 million terminal expansion, Bradbury, an enthusiastic and energetic engineer, is touring the construction site, eager to show off the new terminal’s Maine attractions.
The 137,000-square-foot expansion project doubles the size of the terminal, eliminates an existing arrival-departure bottleneck, automates baggage security checks, and makes Maine’s largest airport more environmentally friendly, but the Jetport director seems most excited about giving the terminal more local appeal.
“What Paul Bradbury challenged us to do,” says project architect Jim Stanislaski, “is, if you come off the Jetport blindfolded and take off the blindfold, you should know you are in Maine.”
Among the ways Gensler, the global architecture firm for which Stanislaski works, tried to give the Jetport a more Maine look were by cladding the façade of the new terminal in porpoise gray metal panels, installing wood laminate ceilings and polished cement floors that look like granite, using actual granite as bollards and at the base of light standards, purchasing a wave pattern feature wall illuminated by LED lights, and hanging a replica of an antique monoplane borrowed from the Owls Head Transportation Museum from the high ceiling of the new terminal.
The concession area at the new gate concourse will also feature Linda Bean’s Perfect Maine lobster rolls along with a Starbucks, a Burger King, and a Down East Marketplace selling Maine publications and products.
But the rationale for undertaking a major facelift in a down economy is not promotional, it’s functional. “The existing terminal was at capacity,” explains Paul Bradbury. “We needed to build it just to properly handle the passengers we already have.”
The Portland International Jetport served close to 1.7 million total passengers in 2010. While that number has essentially remained flat through the recession, many airports saw double-digit declines over the same period. Bradbury attributes Portland’s relatively strong performance in part to the “Southwest Effect,” the increase in air travel that occurs when an airport starts providing direct, low-cost flights such as those offered by Southwest Airlines. Portland has had direct, low-cost flights since 2006. JetBlue provides nonstop service to New York and AirTran flies nonstop to Baltimore. And, according to Bradbury, an anticipated merger of AirTran and Southwest Airlines could result in more direct flights to Atlanta.
Until the Southwest Effect began, Portland suffered “leakage” to Boston’s Logan and to Manchester, New Hampshire. Manchester is still a busier airport than Portland with 3.1 million passengers a year, but that number is down dramatically from 4.3 million in 2005, the year before Portland began offering cheap seats as well.
“It wasn’t long ago that people thought they had to go to Manchester to get the best prices,” says Steven Hewins, AAA Northern New England’s vice president for travel and a member of the Jetport building committee. “That’s no longer true. Portland has a better pricing structure now than Manchester.”
Portland’s terminal expansion, which adds new passenger screening lines, automated baggage screening, and three new gates, will not only help it better serve its existing customers, says Paul Bradbury, it will enable the Jetport to meet projected growth.
“I think this market will reach its potential for the natural catchment area,” says Bradbury, “which is 2 to 2.1 million.” (Bradbury calculated that number of passengers using FAA regional capacity studies and deducting the international passengers who travel to Boston and New York to fly abroad.)
Until 1968, when Portland International Jetport acquired its grandiloquent name (both to distinguish it from the Portland, Oregon, airport and to announce that Maine had entered the jet age), Portland’s airport was a sleepy little airfield in the historic Stroudwater section west of downtown. PWM, the FAA call letters for the Portland Jetport, stand for Portland-Westbrook Municipal, the name given to the airport back in 1933 when it became a public airport. Well into the 1960s, teenagers from all over Greater Portland used the empty parking lot overlooking the deserted landing strip as a lovers’ lane.
Most of the facilities growth at PWM has occurred over the past fifteen years. The original terminal opened in 1968. In 1995, it received a fifty thousand-square- foot, $10 million addition. In 2003, a $28.5 million parking garage was added. The following year a new $9 million baggage claims area was built. And in 2008, a $36.1 million expansion of the Jetport parking garage was completed, bringing the total number of garage spaces to 2,600.
The economic impact of the Jetport is calculated at $868 million annually supporting 11,591 jobs in the region. In terms of direct employment, the Jetport provides jobs for forty-four city employees, the expansion project provided one hundred construction jobs, and there are well over a thousand airline, concession, and security personnel employed at the Jetport.
Though PWM is a department of the City of Portland, director Bradbury says, “The taxpayers of Portland have no exposure from this project.”
The $75 million cost of the terminal expansion was met in part by a $9.1 million federal grant to install a new inline explosives detection system for outbound baggage. The rest of the funding will come from a $4.50 passenger facility charge on each ticket sold. The surcharge will pay off a thirty-year general airport revenue bond.
One of the major improvements this money will purchase for travelers is the physical separation of arrivals and departures. Currently, all arriving and departing passengers must pass through a two thousand square-foot-space between the Jetport’s two escalators, creating a bottle-neck right outside Bradbury’s office at midday and evening crunch times.
Aside from providing separate arrival and departure spaces, the expansion also doubles the number of passenger screening lanes to eight and the new inline explosives detection baggage handling system will speed up the check-in and security clearance process.
“I have missed a flight because the security lines have been so long,” attests building committee member Steve Hewins. “Passengers at peak hour,” promises Paul Bradbury, “won’t be waiting in screening lanes as long.”
Terminal improvements also include a sky bridge to the parking garage, automated ticket kiosks, and an intuitive wayfinding design meant to simplify movement inside and outside the facility. Airports tend to be confusing, and Kafkaesque for many travelers. Outside, the Portland Jetport access road is an easy-to-navigate loop. If you miss your turn, you can just go around again like luggage on a carousel. Inside, the new terminal is designed with pedestrians in mind.
“You always have sightlines to the next place,” says Bradbury.
The terminal expansion does not solve one of the Jetport’s persistent problems, however. The notoriously slow baggage claims area will remain the same, with three carousels at the far east end of the terminal. According to Bradbury, the slow baggage claim area is not a function of the system, but that cost-conscious airlines just don’t have enough staff to handle the bags any faster.
“Portland is one of the slowest in the country,” says travel agent Steve Hewins, “because they have to run a little truck out, unload the plane, drive to the terminal, and put bags one-by-one through a little hole.”
Though air travel can hardly be considered a green technology, the Jetport’s new terminal features a $3 million geothermal heating system paid for largely by a $2.5 million Voluntary Airport Low Emissions grant from the Federal Aviation Administration. “The new system,” says Paul Bradbury, “will save fifty thousand gallons of fuel oil a year.”
The geothermal system is also expected to reduce the Jetport’s carbon dioxide emissions by a thousand tons a year.
In a separate environmental initiative, PWM used $11 million in federal stimulus money to construct a new system that collects and recycles the de-icing fluid sprayed on airplanes. The system is expected to recover 70 percent of the Glycol used at the Jetport.
Noting that the Jetport has signed up to purchase electricity generated from wind turbines, installed showers for employees who cycle to work, and offers preferred parking to employee van pools, terminal expansion project architect Jim Stanislaski is optimistic that the new terminal will receive Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification.
“The City of Portland says all public buildings need to achieve LEED Silver,” says Stanislaski. “The Jetport wants to be a leader in the city and in the region.”
Though the 840-acre Portland International Jetport, with terminal in Portland and runways in South Portland, is tightly bound by the Fore River, Long Creek, Western Avenue, and the Maine Turnpike, PWM does have room to grow. Paul Bradbury says the runways are only at 60 percent capacity and the 7,200-foot main runway can accommodate larger planes. Bradbury also adds, “There was not the capability for additional growth within the existing terminal.” That’s because the Jetport couldn’t add any more flights during the morning push without adding more gates.
When Bradbury looks to the future, he sees more passengers, more flights, and larger airplanes. That is largely because of Portland’s untapped potential for both business and tourism air travel.
“Unum, Idexx, and National Semiconductor are all within a stone’s throw of the airport,” says Bradbury. “That’s not by chance. We gross $26 million annually in rental cars at this little airport.”
Though Portland is not destined to become a busy airline hub, Steve Hewins believes PWM benefits from being the end of the road. At six a.m., the Portland International Jetport bustles with business travelers taking off to New York or Washington.
As much as anything, the PWM terminal expansion is driven by a change in Portland and in Maine. “Maine is really blessed,” says Paul Bradbury. “Portland and the entire state are places many people want to come to for tourism and business well beyond our natural population.”
- By: Edgar Allen Beem