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Takeoff takes a village

Back Story • Thousands of people keep travel ticking at Portland's airport
by: JIM CLARK, One of about 10,000 people who work at PDX, this baggage handler unloads freshly landed suitcases on a belt for passenger pickup.

It's never fun to lose luggage. But to lose an urn with the ashes of your dead mother is in an otherworldly class of catastrophe, particularly if the urn happens to be in a suitcase lost someplace in the national air traffic system.

And while this scene is a humorless one - one that co-stars a crew of helpful baggage sleuths supporting a horrified, panic-stricken man - it's lore at the Portland International Airport, a place so large that apparently anything can happen.

Just ask the folks at PDX, where the 10,000 people who work there roughly match the population of St. Helens. They are baggage handlers and food service people, mechanics and aircraft fuelers, ticketing agents and even some volunteers.

Daily about half of them mix with another 38,000 people, trying to get them where they're going.

Over the holidays, the entire city of Portland could tromp through PDX and still not match the 830,000 people who travel in and out of the airport between Dec. 14 and Jan. 2.

On the outskirts of Northeast Portland, this decent-size village is alive every day, getting people on their way to Grandma's and home again. We want to help people get to know it before they're too busy traveling to look. We'll start at the village center - the airport terminal.

Just like the local pub, really

Though it differs from a neighborhood tavern in a few ways, the airport terminal has some similarities.

Some of the workers say they feel like therapists: The visitors pass out on the furniture; and both are players in a series of random, one-of-a-kind encounters.

For a full account of the scene, we turn to the three cousins who have each had a turn owning DJ's Delivery and Storage near the baggage claims on the terminal's ground floor.

They deliver lost luggage around Portland - usually suitcases, sometimes sailboards - and also store excess baggage not allowed on the plane.

These women know almost everybody. So it's only fair that we introduce them: Lori Yusckat, Joan Lawty and Charla Bjarko.

When asked to give us the inside story on the terminal, one cousin smirked at another and said, 'I told you we should be writing it down.'

The rest of the conversation is similarly raucous, a three-way monologue interspersed with dialogue with customers.

A woman who packed a jacket to go to New Zealand (it's summer there) and a second woman who stored an extra suitcase at DJ's caught portions of the following:

The story of the very upset man who lost his suitcase with the ashes of his dead mother inside.

The one about the woman who wanted her luggage delivered to her car, then kept moving the car around Portland.

And this tale, which we're told is typical, from the day before our visit, when, according to Yusckat, 'A guy walked in here and said, 'I'm a day early,' ' then settled in for the night and fell asleep outside the DJ's office.

'It's like we're bartenders,' she said.

Or mothers.

Or sometimes a pet adoption facility.

Unfortunately, the cousins say, unstowable luggage once included a dog and a cat that didn't have the proper traveling papers.

They were brought to them by a whole crying family about to embark on a cross-country move.

The women found homes for both animals with airport employees and still keep tabs on the pooch and tabby.

They count pet adoption among their successes.

They also add witnessing a few heartwarming scenes to their win category.

Veterans once were welcomed by an archway of flags outside the DJ's office. And because it's located near the baggage claim for foreign flights, they often see families greeting newly adopted babies from overseas.

After years in the airport - Bjarko has more than 20 in the luggage delivery business - the cousins agree on at least two things. First, that the absurd body types featured in cartoons are found on real people.

And second, that they should be writing all this down.

Most are happy to come, go

Frank DiMarco spent 14 years working for United Airlines. Now he's a volunteer at PDX's information booth, serving there with a passel of other aviation fans, who this time of year have been known to wear antlers.

His official estimate is that only about 2 percent of the people at the airport are really having a bad day.

The rest, he said, are people glad to be home or happy to go where they're going. The airport and airlines are full of people who are happy to assist, DiMarco said.

'The airlines tend to attract people - maybe we all have dysfunctional psychologies - but we tend to want to help people,' he said.

And help people he does. He helps a man get a new tie before the business meeting. Helps another find a bus. Helps newcomers get on the MAX downtown.

Because DiMarco spent much of his time as a photographer for United, he's particularly happy to assist the film industry people who pass through the terminal, who he says are more numerous than you might think.

He told the Portland Tribune a few details about a film called 'Burning Plane,' which will shoot here soon.

Speaking of burning planes

The charred decoy out on the airfield is a fake.

If you've seen it alight from Northeast Marine Drive, you might have feared the worst, but the imitation plane is just for practice - and has nothing to do with the upcoming movie.

Every once in a while, the airport's 35 firefighters smother the thing in flammable goo and light it on fire.

They're just keeping their skills sharp, battling flames with high-tech fire engines that cost $1 million apiece and hold at least 1,500 gallons of water.

These things fight fires like tanks battle land mines. They move high off the ground on huge tires and can push through fires with their crews inside, saturating flames with gunlike nozzles.

Though there hasn't been a fire at the airport since a bird flew into a plane engine in 2001, medical skills do come in handy in the small city. The firefighters have aided at least one woman in labor.

A police force of 53 officers and a handful of administrators also help run this little city.

The federal Transportation Security Administration plays its part, too, staffing about 450 baggage snoopers and people screeners at PDX, 250 of whom work at any given time, any day of the year.

Their daily haul of contraband includes hazardous materials from luggage and, from passengers, a collection of knives, the liquids and gels now prohibited in large amounts in carry-ons, and the occasional gun.

Though every day turns up some forbidden trappings, PDX hasn't had a serious security incident since D.B. Cooper hijacked a plane to Seattle in 1971 and jumped out over the Cascades with $200,000 in ransom money.

With 21 pounds of $20 bills strapped to his body, he probably still didn't exceed his carry-on allowance.

Weather can be frightful

Weather is a more typical disturbance at the airport.

When it turns bad, about 25 or 30 key players do a bit of war-gaming in a strategy room that's a lot like the subterranean bunker of the nation's Strategic Air Command post in Washington, D.C.

Here, deep within the labyrinth of security doors that flow out of the PDX terminal, they buzz around a huge oval table that seats about 10 and holds a bank of telephones and laptops.

A manager gives commands from a place surrounded by television screens, and the rest of them take orders, coordinating airline logistics, customers and the media, among other things.

This is where a few lucky folks passed New Year's Eve in 1999, when no one knew what Y2K, the anxiety-spurring computer glitch, might bring.

It's also the place that a similar airport crew was stationed while Mount St. Helens was puffing, ready in case the eruption disrupted air traffic. Should things drag on - and with volcanoes they tend to - there's enough food in here to last a few days.

At least the employees who work the dispatch room next door get to go home.

Most of the time there are two of them in there, occasionally more, sitting at a wall of monitors tracking police and fire calls, video surveillance and the terminal's numerous smoke, water and door alarms.

The door alarms are a pretty serious matter.

Doors leading out of the main terminal unlock with the swipe of a badge, and the system that unlocks them is one step shy of retinal scans - employees who pass through are tracked individually.

They even have to shut the door between them when they walk in pairs.

Everyone who moves beyond the normal terminal bustle is marked. Many of the doorways lead to the airfield, where the real fun takes place.

Ground crews make it work

It takes about 470 people and hundreds of little machines to work the outside operations at PDX.

Many of the machines are fuel trucks for airplanes, which tap petroleum from underground tanks by anchoring via huge hoses that look like elephant trunks.

The rest are called 'tugs,' and they either ferry bags from the baggage claim or push airplanes away from the terminal.

Mona Kelemene works for Menzies Aviation, one of a few contractors that provides ground services to airlines at PDX. She says driving a tug is a lot like driving a golf cart.

'I'm a golfer, so it's easy for me,' she said.

She was catching up to an outbound Alaska Airlines plane with a few suitcases for a late-arriving passenger, hustling from the underground maze where the baggage is sorted.

'Summertime, people take their time,' she said with a shrug. But in December, 'it's a holiday, and everybody's got to go somewhere.'

So do their bags.

Tomino Tomoichy says on an average day he hefts between 60 and 70 baggage carts full of them.

His drive to and from the baggage claim is a little more hectic than one might think. He has to share the road with the food carts, mechanics and cleaning crews bustling around the planes.

The pilots are out there, too, on foot, checking things over before they head for the skies.

As in any city, people have places to go. Just ask the kid in the pink snowsuit. Or the two guys with the two Boston terriers headed for the gates. Or that other kid, the one running with the pizza and the tennis racket.

A lot of people are on the move here, but this little village at PDX just stays put, whirring along.

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PDX facts, figures tell the story

Portland International Airport is the 25th largest cargo airport in the nation, moving 700 tons of cargo a day, and the 35th largest passenger airport, moving 14 million people in 2006.

But there's more:

• The terminal is 1.5 million square feet and covered in 11 acres of carpet. There are 83 elevators, escalators and moving sidewalks.

• In the ground-level maze through which baggage travels is the evidence of aviation's past: decals of old service providers, including the now defunct Republic Airlines.

• On the other side of the runway from the terminal is a handful of fully armed military F-15s and pilots who hang out in their own gym, study and watch television to pass the time between action for the Oregon Air National Guard.

• The odd building across from the airport terminal, the one that looks like a geodesic dome stretched into a horseshoe, is a soundproof enclosure where plane engines are run up for tests. Its inner walls are made of carpet and fiberglass to absorb the sound.

• About 100 private planes are stored at PDX, and the people who travel in them use a private terminal near Northeast 82nd Avenue.

• Markings on the planes called tail numbers indicate where a plane is from and what airline owns it. A local favorite is this tail number: N1KE. Guess who owns that one?

• Designs on airplanes are called liveries, and a partnership between Alaska Airlines and Walt Disney Co. makes for some of the liveliest liveries at PDX. Tinkerbell and Mickey Mouse regularly fly through.

• The worst pests at the airport also fly. So do some of the airport's best friends. Nesting pairs of hawks are encouraged to stay on at the airport. The birds are savvy about planes, and their territorial ways can keep younger hawks, ducks, geese and starlings away from the airfield.

• The 11-mile fence that encircles the airport isn't just for keeping out people. It's trenched 3 feet into the ground to keep out coyotes.

• The Port of Portland owns 400 motorized vehicles and maintenance machines that operate at the airport, including weedwackers.

• The maintenance building includes, among other things, 3,000 types of light bulbs.

- Lee van der Voo