Daily Astorian reporter Benjamin Romano joined a delegation from the Port of Astoria on a behind-the-scenes visit to Portland International Airport Friday.

PORTLAND - As we drive up Airport Way toward the main Portland International Airport terminal, threat level orange is evident. Signs notify drivers to be prepared to stop for vehicle inspections.

Law enforcement officers randomly select cars at a stoplight and ask permission to perform visual security checks.

Inside the new seven-story short-term parking structure the spaces closest to the terminal are fenced off to prevent malfeasants from parking a bomb-on-wheels where it could do terrible damage.

These are the two most visible signs of increased precautions at the airport, said Chris Corich, general manager for airport operations and maintenance.

Corich leads us to his office, where the view was rivaled only by the one from the control tower, which we weren't allowed to visit.

Photo courtesy Port of Portland

Bob Sallinger, director of the Portland Audubon Society Wildlife Care Center, examines and treats an injured red-tailed hawk. Sharon Gordon rescued the bird from a PDX runway after a pilot reported its presence.His mascot, a fake coyote named Bruce, is stationed by his office door.

"We have a wildlife challenge here," he explains. He went on to describe in detail the ways that Portland International Airport rids its runways of starlings, herons, hawks and coyotes. They haven't had any problems with elk.

Corich takes us through a secure door to the Emergency Operations Center where laptops and telephones are laid out at the ready. This is where airport staff gather to

handle the local response to events such as the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. In another room, the airport's communication center, television screens display the view from 80 security cameras.

The airport - owned and operated by the Port of Portland - is like a 3,000-acre city within a city. About as many people work here as live in Astoria. It has its own fire department and police force of sworn officers, and all work closely with their city of Portland counterparts. Upwards of 20,000 passengers come through each day - more during busy periods such as the beginning of spring vacation.

Photo courtesy Port of Portland

The concourse at Portland International Airport is filled with a selection of overhead artistic pieces.Back in the terminal, piano chords float over the chatter and shuffle and a crooner belts out a tune.

"Not many airports own a grand piano," Corich said. "Well, we do."

Travelers stroll along a strip of bustling shops and restaurants called the Oregon Market. PDX was recently recognized for its innovative concessions in an industry survey released by Airport Revenue Magazine.

The entertainment makes people more comfortable when times are tense, Corich said, and it bumps up business in the airport shops.

At lunch, we are joined by Suzanne Miller, the airport's general manager of aviation marketing and customer service, who describes newly restored international passenger service to Portland.

Lufthansa begins nonstop flights to Germany March 31 and German tourists are very aware of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.

"We didn't expect this level of interest on the tourism side," Miller said, "which will be great."

Also, Mexicana will begin nonstop service between Portland and Guadalajara, Mexico May 1.

Our tour continues down a snaking white hallway to a cargo elevator. We disembark in the airport's bowels, where baggage handlers route checked luggage toward the proper flight. A spaghetti of electrical and utility conduits clings to the ceiling and the scent of jet exhaust wafts in from a large opening at the far end of an underground driveway. Corich opens a mini-garage door and we peer into the clean, familiar baggage claim area with its silver pillars and green, blue and purple carpet.

"This is what the other side looks like," he said.

Outside the baggage claim, passengers hurry off Portland's MAX Train. The train runs from downtown Portland to the airport in 38 minutes. Portland is one of only a handful of U.S. airports served by light rail, Corich said, proudly.

Photo courtesy Port of Portland

The canopy above an entrance at Portland International Airport.Back in the main ticketing area, a gray, minivan-sized machine swallows luggage whole. A crew of about a dozen uniformed Transportation Safety Administration workers swarms around the machine, which uses the same technology as a CAT scan to look inside luggage. PDX has six of these, costing about $1 million each.

We all pile into a van on the top floor of the parking garage - "the car wash level," Corich calls it. He slaps a "Port of Portland" magnet on the side of the vehicle so we can be easily identified as we drive around the airfield.

We pass the Oregon Air National Guard base. A squadron of F-15s took off earlier with a thunder that shook the air.

"This is the real thing. They get deployed," Corich said. Fighter planes from this unit have flown air-to-air combat missions, patrolling the no-fly zones over northern and southern Iraq.

Corich points out the various lights and electronic signaling devices crouched around the runways. Blue lights mark the taxiways, the white lights mark runways. Yellow lights mean caution and red lights mean stop, he explains.

"We have the safest aviation system in the world," he said.

As if on cue, Corich gets a page from the communications center. A flight with 150 people on board is inbound on Alert 1. That means there's something wrong - an electrical failure in this case. It's relatively minor, akin to a warning light on a car's dashboard, Corich said.

Moments later, half-a-dozen emergency vehicles are positioned around the runway. There are some tense moments as the Alert 1 plane comes into sight and prepares to land.

The landing looks like any other. An airport vehicle follows the jet down the runway to watch for fluid leaks or debris.

"You've got to worry about everything," Corich said.

As we continue, Corich points out different methods the airport has employed to clear animals from the runways.

Wooden traps are baited with potato chips - apparently a favorite food of the flocking starlings that flit around the runways. Last year, wildlife managers helped relocate 140 hawks that had made the airport home. Noisy bird cannons make loud booms to scare birds away. Chain link fence is buried in the ground to block coyotes from digging their way into the airport.

We arrive at the airport fire station where firefighters have just parked the bulky green emergency response vehicles they rolled into position a few minutes earlier.

Airport firefighters respond to between 1,500 and 1,600 calls each year, said Port of Portland Fire Lt. Dan Weaver.

Only about 18 percent of those calls have to do with aircraft emergencies. The rest are medical calls, structure or vehicle emergencies and boat calls. Firefighters keep a rescue boat ready - a requirement for any airport near a major body of water.

Firefighter Jeff Holter invites us to climb into the cab of a six-wheeled "crash truck." There's a Kermit the Frog face painted on the side over the words, "It's not easy being green."

Holter drives the 40-foot monster out of the station and gives a quick demonstration of its abilities. Designed to get a lot of water to an airplane crash quickly, the truck carries 3,000 gallons and can spray it from two high-powered water cannons at 1,500 gallons per minute. He unleashes both cannons at once, sending a flood of water into the air in front of us.

"These things are pretty impressive," Holter said.

As the road around the airfield winds back toward the terminal, we come near the highly secured area where the airplanes are parked. Corich shows his identification at a guarded checkpoint and we are waved through.

"The security is as good as we can make it, given the fact that we've got 3,000 acres and 11 miles of fence," he said. "We just do the best we can."


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