Just before Thanksgiving an old friend invited me to work on his new TV show for a few weeks (“Instant Mom,” on Nick At Nite. Not that I’m plugging it, and not that I’m not). Flying on short notice may be expensive, but at least it’s inconvenient. Making three flights and two plane changes gave me a chance to compare Portland International Jetport to three other airports, each with its own set of joys.
Getting off a plane in Philadelphia was like being beamed into Manhattan. I was buffeted about in ways I had not experienced since my first time on that great river of commerce, Fifth Avenue (forget studying for an MBA; you will never fully understand capitalism until you watch investment bankers walking by Dolce & Gabbana discussing business deals and stepping over homeless people without breaking stride).
Phoenix had all the crowding of Philadelphia, plus suffocating heat and great distances. It is a sarcastically large airport. My connection was one concourse over from where I landed, or three movable sidewalks and two long walks away. I get it, sort of. Phoenix is a major hub, serving big planes and many flights. Movable sidewalks are fun as long as you can keep up. If you can’t, you get a free ride on a kiddie train, which isn’t humiliating at all. What I do not get is the stifling atmosphere. Has living on the surface of the sun for so long destroyed Arizonans’ ability to discern hot and cold? There’s 10,000 people walking around sweating, Phoenix. Take a hint. Flip the AC.
Bob Hope Airport in Burbank tries to sell itself as the cute and cuddly Los Angeles airport, but like Burbank itself, it has no distinguishing characteristics. Unless you count its open-air baggage claim area, which makes waiting for luggage at least a little uncomfortable in any weather.
Compared to these much bigger airports, “Portland International Jetport” seems a little grandiose. Yes, it has jets. Yes, there are flights to Canada, which is technically another country. However, unless your destination is the nearest hub of an airline that services Portland, you probably will not reach your destination in one flight, or even one plane.
To put it in a historical context, if the airport in Casablanca had been anything like ours, Victor and Ilsa Laszlo would have needed three connecting flights to get out of Nazi-controlled territory. If the heroic couple had to sit anywhere near a baby like the one that cried from Philadelphia to Phoenix, Victor would have had a decision to make: how much suffering was he willing to endure to lift the yoke of oppression from Czechoslovakia?
In other, more important ways, the “jetport” compares quite favorably. The ticket area is spacious and light since the recent remodel. The help is, well, helpful. At the other airports on my itinerary, staff people tensed visibly whenever a traveler approached. They spoke in clipped tones that did not invite conversation. It is hard to blame them; they are no doubt bombarded by problems all day from nervous, rushed and often surly passengers. It can’t be good for business, though.
In Portland, the volume is lower, so even if the percentage of problem passengers is the same, the staff is more resilient. The bag checker at the desk when I checked in came around the counter to help me even though he didn’t have to; he literally went out of his way to help. The same guy apologized for my wait because there was somebody in line ahead of me. One person, the shortest line I would be in all day. I felt like I was flying in the 1950s.
Later, when I was waiting to board my plane, I noticed a middle-aged, developmentally disabled man sitting near me. He kept examining his carry-on bag to make sure everything was just so. He talked to himself, repeating the details of his flight, repeating the procedure for when he arrived after the flight. It shortly became clear that he was flying by himself, and he was obviously nervous about it. There was a relative with him to help him get on the plane. I could not remember the last time I had seen someone at the departure gate who was not flying and did not work for an airline. The woman, who looked like his sister, reassured the man that he had everything, helped him with his checklists, and showed him how to use speed dial to reach her in an emergency.
When boarding time came, the airline people gently explained the boarding process to him, gave him extra time to say goodbye to his companion, and walked him down the jetway while the rest of us waited. Despite the wait, I felt none of the tension that would be rampant at the other airports, with their air of glorified bus stations. Maybe we were all remembering simpler times, when our loved ones could see us off at the gate, too.
Or maybe it was because Portland has the baby bear of airports: not too big, not too small, but just right.
Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, now lives in Scarborough and is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter: @mikelangworthy.