Portland International Airport – supporting air services in a hotbed of environmental awareness


Portland, Oregon, is one of the USA's most attractive and liberally minded cities. Its airport, Portland International, is appropriate to the size and economic scope of the city and surrounding area. It serves as an O&D airport and a spoke to large West Coast hubs, having a minor hub role of its own to play and handling mainly full service airlines.

But as the airport grows - it could reach a milestone of 20 million ppa within three years - it will surely come under ever-greater scrutiny for its environmental awareness; perhaps more so than other airports.

This report examines present and future growth trends at the airport, local airport statistics, how the airport matches up to its peers across a range of metrics, at construction activities and at its traditional ownership. It concludes by looking at the environmental measures that have already been put in place.

  • Portland International Airport (PIA) is the largest airport in Oregon and serves as a spoke to large West Coast hubs, handling mainly full-service airlines.
  • PIA has been voted "best airport in America" for the past three years by readers of Travel and Leisure magazine.
  • PIA is a relatively small player compared to other West Coast airports, but it has a good variety of airline choices for its size.
  • The airport lacks international and nonstop destinations compared to its peers, but it is well-connected within North America.
  • PIA has been experiencing consistent passenger growth since 2009 and is on track to reach 20 million passengers per year within three years.
  • The airport has implemented various environmental measures, including noise management and carbon emissions reduction, to align with the city's environmental values.

Portland - the US' 'most accessible city' and its most liberal

Portland, the largest city in the US state of Oregon, occupies a position between the sprawling metropolises of San Francisco/Sacramento to the south and Seattle to the north, though it is considerably closer to the latter. Apart from Seattle itself, Portland is about as far north and west as it is possible for a major city to be in the US. Oregon City, at the western end of the Oregon Trail, the 2,200-mile (3,500 km) 19th century wagon route and emigrant track from the Missouri River, is actually situated in the Portland metropolitan region's southern suburbs.

The city had an estimated population of 619,360 in 2014, making it the 28th most populous in the United States. Approximately 2,348,247 people live in the Portland metropolitan statistical area, which is the 24th most populous such area in the US. Approximately 60% of Oregon's population resides within the Portland Metropolitan Area.

The timber industry was a major force in Portland's early economy but the city soon developed a reputation as one of the most dangerous ports in the world; a hub for organised crime, such as racketeering. After the city's economy experienced an industrial boom during World War 2, the port continued to prosper (Portland is the third largest by export tonnage on the west coast), as did the steel industry. The broader area has also become a cluster for athletic footwear manufacturers, being home to Nike, Adidas and others.

More recently, technology has taken on a leading role in Portland's economy and there are over 1,200 technology companies in the metropolitan area, encouraging the name 'Silicon Forest,' signifying a mixture of the abundant trees with abundant technology. The largest employer in the area is Intel, the computer components manufacturer, although there are equally many start-up ventures.

All these industries benefit from a number of local factors: transport (the port, the airport, the west coast intercontinental railroad and interstate highways); easily accessible resources and what have been (to date) relatively low energy costs.

Perhaps what has been the biggest change in Portland, considering its criminal history, is that from the 1960s onward it became one of the most - perhaps even the most - liberal cities in the US; a centre of counterculture values that embraces environmentalism and lifestyle choice. Its governance includes a now unique city commission and the only directly elected metropolitan planning organisation in the US. Its local style is evident from its land-use planning (including 10,000 acres of public parks) and investment in public transportation, the high 'walkability' ratio of the city, a very large cycling community, and 'farm-to-table' dining values. It has become one of the US' most vibrant cities for the creation of rock music It even has its own TV comedy show, Portlandia, which lampoons these values and the city's right-on status.

While officially known for over a century as the 'City of Roses' (it has an ideal climate for their cultivation), Portland has several unofficial slogans, such as 'PDX' (the IATA three letter code for the airport), and even 'Keep Portland Weird.' Portland's popularity ensures that it remains consistently high in the list of places Americans would like to live and it typically vies with Austin, Texas, for the title of 'most liberal city.'

Being avant-garde, however, does not always sit happily alongside the operation of airports; nor do some environmental and lifestyle objectives. This report seeks, inter alia, to compare the economic reality of operating an airport amid those governmental and citizen-inspired aims.

A smaller West Coast airport, relatively speaking

Portland International Airport (hereinafter Portland or PIA) serves the city of Portland and its surrounding area. It is the largest airport in Oregon and a hub of aviation activity in the country's northwest. PIA has extensive connections to cities and towns across North America with Alaska Airlines the largest operator, followed by Southwest and Delta.

For each of the last three years (2013/14/15) it has been voted 'best airport in America' by readers of Travel and Leisure magazine, which rated airports according to location and access, check-in and security, restaurants and bars, shopping, and design. (A major feature seems to have been the airport's unique patterned carpet but it has since been taken up.)

The table below compares PIA with peer and neighbouring airports in California, (San Francisco and Oakland), Washington State (Seattle/Tacoma) and British Columbia in Canada (Vancouver).

The table uses a variety of metrics that include aviation and population statistics. The same airports/city regions are compared in other analyses in this report, below.

Rankings of Portland and peer/neighbour airports by assorted metrics:





Cargo payload

Pax 2015 (in millions)

City-region population (million)

Ratio: pax to local population 2015









San Francisco
































From the data above it can be concluded that Portland is a relatively small player in comparison with this peer group of western US/Canadian airports, which act as O&D airports and hubs. PIA itself is more O&D-oriented than hub-oriented. In 2015, 83% of its passengers were O&D and 17% used it as a hub.

The only significant variation is that Portland ranks higher for frequencies than it does in other categories, but in all of them it is some way behind its main rival, Seattle/Tacoma. The passenger to local population ratio is not particularly high, and this is probably due to a relatively small passenger total for its immediate catchment area. The area is very similar in size to that of Vancouver, which handled 3.4 million more passengers in 2015. Nor is its cargo ranking high, allowing for the breadth of industry in the region that was referred to earlier.

Map showing the relative location of Portland to San Francisco (and Oakland), Seattle and Vancouver

The map makes clear Portland's isolation from other important cities in the northwest quadrant of the US and the southwest quadrant of Canada. The nearest main city, Seattle, is 175 miles away, while San Francisco is 635 miles and Vancouver is 315 miles distant. The nearest large town to the south of Portland is Eugene (110 miles), whose airport handled 900,000 passengers in 2015 and is connected by air to Portland.

The table below shows a fairly significant number of passenger airlines using this airport, and most of them operate solely domestically. There are 61 nonstop destinations, an average of 4.3 per airline. There are no nonstop freight routes.

Portland International Airport network summary (at 22-Feb-2016)

Total Airlines


Domestic only




Total nonstop passenger destinations






Asia Pacific




Latin America


Middle East


North America


Total nonstop freight destinations






Asia Pacific




Latin America


Middle East


North America


PIA lacks international and nonstop destinations but scores better on airline choice

The table below shows how PIA compares alongside the same selection of US and Canadian airports as earlier, measured by the variety of airlines that use it and their routes.

It is evident that there are fewer airlines operating at PIA than at any of the peer airports other than at Oakland, which is an airport that largely functions to support LCC operations. Portland is also comparatively weak on international airlines, and on nonstop passenger and freight destinations, compared with rival airports such as Seattle-Tacoma and San Francisco.

However, a lower passenger to airline ratio means there is more choice per passenger for the size of the total traffic, and Portland scores highly in that category in comparison with Seattle-Tacoma.

Comparison of airports by total airlines, passsengers and nonstop destinations


Total airlines

Pax traffic 2015 (million)

Pax to airline ratio

International airlines

Nonstop passenger destinations

Nonstop freight destinations








San Francisco




























Connectivity - most routes are in continental USA, a few isolated European and North Asian services

The route map below shows destinations that can be reached by direct or connecting flights. Most direct flights are domestic, within the mainland USA, and there is a small number of Hawaiian Islands routes. Portland is also connected with Alaska, and internationally with Mexico, Japan, the Netherlands and Keflavik, Iceland (seasonal, not on the map).

Direct and indirect (connecting) routes from Portland International Airport, Feb-2016

The 'heat' map below identifies the countries/regions with the greatest density of international seats and they are in the Americas, followed by Europe and North Asia.

Portland International Airport international capacity, seats by region heat map, 22-Feb to 28-Feb-2016

The chart below goes into more detail about the seat capacity split by region.

Portland International Airport international capacity, seats by region, 21-Feb-2016 to 28-Feb-2016

Nonstop connectivity - domestic compares with peers; international is low

With reference to nonstop connectivity, the chart below shows how PIA compares with the same set of peer airports for passenger connectivity, i.e. the number of nonstop destinations.

It is evident immediately that there is very little connectivity to and from the Middle East at these airports, and none at all from Portland, in fact. There are no flights at all connecting any airport with Africa, as is the case with so many US international airports.

In most other cases PIA ranks lower in the table than does the peer airport group, with the exception of Latin American destinations, where it has the same number of services as does Seattle-Tacoma airport. Within North America PIA lags the main hub airports but it has an equivalent number of services to those at Vancouver, and is some way ahead of Oakland.

Nonstop connectivity values (passenger destinations). Comparison of Portland with San Francisco, Oakland, Seattle-Tacoma and Vancouver airports

The chart below demonstrates that PIA is predominately a full service airline airport (76.8% of seats), with low cost and regional services accounting for 23.2%.

Portland International Airport capacity, seat share by airline type, 21-Feb-2016 to 28-Feb-2016

Comparison of selected airports by airline type, full service or low cost, by seat availability, 15-Feb-2016 to 21-Feb--2016


% of seats on FSCs

% of seats on LCCs

% of seats on other modes (e.g. regional, charter airlines)

Clarification of previous column






San Francisco
















While PIA does not have the highest percentage of seat availability on full service airlines within this peer group, it does have more than a respectable amount and is comparable in this respect with San Francisco.

Leading domestic routes are to and from the main hubs

The main domestic air routes in the period Dec-2014 to Nov-2015 were as follows:

Primary domestic routes from Portland International Airport (Dec 2014 - Nov 2015)






Alaska, Delta, Horizon

San Francisco


Alaska, United, Virgin America

Los Angeles


Alaska, Delta, Southwest



Frontier, Southwest, United



Alaska, American, Southwest

Las Vegas


Alaska, Southwest, Spirit

Chicago O'Hare


Alaska, American, Spirit, United

Salt Lake City


Alaska, Delta

San Jose


Alaska, Southwest



Horizon, Southwest

The first four of these listed count as primary hubs, irrespective of O&D traffic, and all 10 are in the west or mid-west of the US, with only Denver and Chicago to the east of the Rocky Mountains.

PIA has more First and Premium economy seating than the global average

The chart below shows the distribution of seating capacity by class of seat throughout the entire PIA system, as of this week, compared with the global average. PIA has a greater percentage of First and Premium Economy seats than the global average, but not of Business Class seats. (This applies even more so to domestic flights, but not so much in the case of international flights).

Portland International Airport schedule by class of seat - one-way weekly departing seats (total system) 21-Feb-2016 to 28-Feb-2016

96.3% of seat capacity at Portland is on domestic routes, as opposed to international ones and that is a similar ratio to the one between the numbers of US airlines and foreign airlines.

The distribution of that seat capacity by individual airline is detailed below.

Portland International Airport capacity (seats per week) by all airlines, total system, 21-Feb-2016 to 28-Feb-2016

As mentioned earlier in the report, Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air, for which PIA is a hub, is the largest airline by seat capacity followed by Southwest Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, in that order.

Airline alliances are not well represented

Airline alliances account for only 27.8% of seat capacity in total, led by SkyTeam (Delta).

Portland International Airport capacity, seat share by alliance/unaligned airlines, 21-Feb-2016 to 28-Feb-2016

Comparing this position with the peer airports group it can be observed that PIA has the second highest proportion of unaligned airline seats after Oakland, which again is mainly an LCC O&D airport. While this may not enhance its business credentials, it may go some way to explaining its high level of airline competitiveness, as aligned airlines tend to cooperate rather than compete.

Comparison of Portland International Airport with selected airports by alliance penetration - seat availability, 21-Feb-2016 to 28-Feb-2016


% of seats on unaligned airlines

% of seats on aligned airlines




San Francisco












Traffic solid, and sustained passenger growth over four years

During four years of mixed fortunes for US airlines between 2012 and 2015, PIA has demonstrated solid passenger growth, from 14.4 million to 16.9 million ppa. Between 2014 and 2015 the growth rate was 5.9%, the same as between 2013 and 2014, but in the former period it was compound growth, which added exactly one million passengers. No data is yet available for 2016. Traffic has been growing consistently since 2009, after a steep drop of -9.6% between 2008 and 2009 . It seems that the economic recession did not impact the airport too greatly. After the loss of 1.4 million passengers in the period 2008-2009, it was not until 2012 that the 2008 level was again reached.

An airport serving a metropolitan region of this size with a high proportion of technological and creative industries would expect realistically to attract 20 million ppa within a short period of time. That figure is achievable within three years if recent growth rates can be sustained, never mind improved.

The question is whether they can. While anti-growth protests are very rare in a passive political environment, experience in Europe says that once the 20 million ppa barrier comes within view environmentalists (and there are many of them in Portland) tend to come together to try to find ways of mitigating, or even preventing, that growth.

Portland International Airport annual passenger numbers

Landing charges are middle of the road against peers

Aircraft landing and other charges will have an impact on airline choice of airport. The landing charges in the table below applied to PIA in 2014, and to the peer group of airports (US-only) referred to previously.

It can be seen that the highest landing charges across all categories were at San Francisco International Airport. Otherwise, PIA is bracketed with the other airports and there is little variation between categories. Broadly, PIA's charges were slightly lower than those at Oakland, the LCC airport, but slightly higher than those at Seattle-Tacoma in neighbouring Washington state.

Landing Charges (USD) for Portland International Airport [PDX], San Francisco International Airport [SFO], Oakland International Airport [OAK], and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport [SEA] for 2014

Stage lengths - the hub/spoke effect ensures a wide range of flight lengths

PIA has three runways, the longer two of which appear to be easily capable of handling long haul services, as can be shown by experience with those arrangements that exist already, such as Amsterdam and Tokyo. Thus, a small percentage of seats are offered on services of between six and twelve hours duration. Portland is a domestic hub while acting as a spoke to other hubs. Bearing in mind the long distances involved in the US it is not surprising that the vast majority of seats on sale (95.7%) are in the flight length categories ranging from zero to six hours.

Portland International Airport, seats by length of flight, 21-Feb-2016 to 28-Feb-2016

The chart below clarifies that the concentration of flight frequencies also fits into these flight time blocks.

Portland International Airport frequencies, total system, (21-Feb-2016 to 28-Feb-2016)

(Data on the individual circular fields shown is available online). The largest field here is for flight frequencies in the category 0-1.5 hours, of which there were 674 in the week in question. By contrast, there were just six frequencies in the 11-hour flight bracket.

A further perspective on frequencies is presented below in the form of a bar chart of available seats (arriving and departing) by time of day on a typical day, in this case Friday 26-Feb-2016.

The chart shows that there are no departing or arriving seats sold between midnight and 0500 (and hence no schedules). However, there is no curfew; the airport is shared with the military in the form of the Oregon Air National Guard.

Otherwise, the distribution of seat sales indicates a fairly even flow of outgoing and incoming passengers throughout much of the day, with the exception of 0600-0659 and 2200-2059, when the statistics are skewed in favour of one or the other.

Portland International Airport, arriving/departing seats per hour, typical day: Friday 26-Feb-2016 (all airlines, total system, all terminals, all origins and destinations)

Cargo - mainly domestic operations; international cargo is dictated by passenger routes

Most cargo capacity (94.6%) is domestic and is carried in passenger aircraft belly holds. Consequently, the volume capacity split is very similar to the passenger one, led by Alaska Airlines (47.8%), then followed by Delta, United, Southwest and American. Southwest's contribution in this segment is considerably less than it is in the passenger segment.

What little international cargo there is, is distributed by region according to the chart below.

Portland International Airport, total international capacity, cargo payload (kg) by region, 21-Feb-2016 to 28-Feb-2016

Those regions are represented by individual countries, i.e. The Netherlands in the case of Europe, and Tokyo, Mexico and Canada in their respective regions.

There are several parcel integrators serving the airport such as FedEx, UPS and DHL.

A rebalancing of terminal traffic will be achieved by way of a USD98 million project

It is suggested in some online sources that there are two main passenger terminals, South and North, connected beyond the security checkpoints by a walkway.

In reality Portland International Airport only has one terminal for commercial aviation, shaped like the letter "H", which leads the airport to refer to things directionally (e.g. the North concourses or North side or south side). There are five concourses in all, and 75 gates.

According to the CAPA Global Airport Construction Database there is a USD98 million renovation of Concourse E under way, to be completed in 2017.

The rationale behind the project is to balance aircraft and passenger traffic on the north and south sides of the terminal. Its small size can be gauged from the map below. The project will add a 44,000sqft addition to the concourse and aerobridges for aircraft. Once this project is complete, the Alaska Air Group will relocate to the expanded north side.

Simplified terminal map

Ownership - a long-established commission governs the airport, port, and industrial parks

PIA is owned and operated by the Port of Portland, which also owns two other airports (Troutdale and Hillsboro), together with four marine terminals and five industrial parks.

The Port of Portland in its current form was created in 1970 by legislation that combined the original Port with the Portland Commission of Public Docks, a city agency dating from 1910. It has been considered to be a regional government, with jurisdiction in the Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties since 1973.

There are nine commissioners who regulate the organisation. They are appointed by the Governor, and approved by the State Senate. The Commissioners elect the Port of Portland's executive director, who oversees the daily operations of the port.

While there was some private sector involvement in the extension of a light rail line to the airport in the late 1990s, there is no sign that this lengthy, and in some ways, idiosyncratic governmental arrangement is likely to change or be replaced by the private sector in the foreseeable future; full or partial privatisation of the airport can be ruled out.

Summary and conclusions

  • Portland holds a position in the popular culture of the US. Its award-winning airport helps reflect that status;
  • While it is the largest airport in the state of Oregon by quite a way, it remains a relatively small player in comparison with a peer group of western US/Canadian airports that have greater hub capability;
  • The leading domestic routes are to and from main US hubs;
  • PIA lacks international and nonstop passenger and freight destinations when compared with these peers, but it offers more comprehensive airline choice to passengers, for its size;
  • While it is quite well connected within North America, there is scope to improve international connectivity to Latin America and Europe. The Icelandair service, part of a drive by that airline to increase its presence across North America, does at least offer many onward connections in Europe beyond Iceland;
  • PIA is mainly a full service airport, but not to the same degree as Seattle-Tacoma;
  • Aligned airlines are not a feature. Of the peer group, only Oakland Airport has fewer seats available on aligned airlines;
  • Passenger traffic has been growing consistently since 2009 after a steep drop between 2008 and 2009. At current rates of growth 20 million ppa should be achievable within three years;
  • In terms of landing charges, PIA is broadly ranked with other peer group West Coast airports, with the exception of San Francisco, where charges are considerably higher;
  • There is a broad range of stage lengths from and to PIA, which reflects its mixed O&D and hub nature (the latter more as a spoke). The main domestic routes are within the western part of the US;
  • The distribution of seat sales by time of day indicates a fairly even flow of outgoing and incoming passengers throughout much of the day, with not a great deal of skewing between incoming and outgoing passengers outside a five hour period from midnight, when there is no activity. The airport has no curfew;
  • Most cargo is carried belly hold and is domestic, with the three main international markets being Amsterdam, Tokyo, Mexico and Canada;
  • The single-terminal airport is being modernised by way of USD98 million renovation of Concourse E. CAPA is not aware of runway or apron works at this time;
  • With there being ownership by the Port of Portland and operation by a long-established commission that is regarded as a model of democracy, there is little chance of any move to privatise the airport.

The environmental question

In the environmental report the economic reality of operating an airport was alluded to, compared with the aims and objectives of environmentalists, alternative lifestyle proponents and 'counterculture'. While electric trams and cycle and walking lanes are very much in tune with those governmental and citizen-inspired aims, airports are always on the verge of becoming unacceptable in the community, typically for both noise and emissions reasons.

PIA has an active noise management programme using fixed and portable noise recorders. The airport works together with local stakeholders and employs a collaborative, rather than 'carrot and stick', approach to achieving noise mitigation objectives. Both arriving and departing routes are channelled along the Columbia River and away from populated areas. Engine maintenance run-up procedures take place in a designated area where specific noise mitigation measures are in effect. The National Guard is encouraged to organise training flights in such a way as to mirror civilian operations wherever possible.

More information is available on this video:

With regard to emissions, in Oct-2015 the Airports Council International-North America recognised Portland International, Hillsboro and Troutdale Airports for leadership in managing carbon emissions. First to achieve Airport Carbon Accreditation in 2014, the Port of Portland's airports are a part of an elite group of 10 certified facilities in North America that actively manage carbon and achieve measurable carbon reductions.

In 2009, the Port of Portland committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 15% below 1990 levels by 2020. The Port's systematic environmental management system sets yearly targets to meet that goal. For example, in 2015 the Port added six more compressed natural gas shuttle buses to its fleet, for a total of 30 buses that serve PIA.

Since 2011 the Port has reduced electricity consumption by over 27 million kilowatt hours per year and reduced carbon emissions by over 21 thousand metric tons. The cumulative effect of energy efficiency upgrades, cleaner fuels and engines, renewable energy credit purchases and advanced metering has allowed the Port to achieve a 65% reduction in carbon emissions, far exceeding the original 15% reduction goal.

Solar panels are deployed, with two solar arrays of 120 panels (28 kilowatts) and 32 panels (6.6 kilowatts). The airport also cooperated with third parties - for example the Nike Store in the terminal building, which is solar powered. The project arose when Nike, Delta Air Lines and the Port of Portland joined forces to install solar panels on the airport's canopy. The panels are supplying approximately 100% of the Nike Store's needs.

Solar panels on car parking area at PIA

For more information on solar power generation at airports, see the related reports:




All the measures referred to here are necessary requirements for any airport that wishes to keep stakeholders happy, and those stakeholders include people who may never use the airport for its main purpose.

PIA is a mid-sized airport that suits the size and economic scope of the city well, but it has recognised - in this rather unique milieu of the US' most liberally-minded city - that as it grows it has to stay ahead of the game environmentally in order to retain the support of the citizens.

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