Home » These Bizarre Bus-Like Mobile Lounges Tried To Revolutionize Airports, Now They’re Relics Of The Past

These Bizarre Bus-Like Mobile Lounges Tried To Revolutionize Airports, Now They’re Relics Of The Past

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If you’ve flown into Washington Dulles International Airport, you might have spotted or even ridden in a bizarre bus-like people mover called a mobile lounge. While mobile lounges seem like a strange solution to an easy problem today, when they were introduced 61 years ago they were seen as the future of how an airport was supposed to work. Here’s how the mobile lounge was supposed to revolutionize airports, and why they’re a weird air travel rarity today.

As many of our readers know, I try to go flying either as a passenger or a pilot whenever I find the time or money. One of the more thrilling parts of my recent trip to Hawai’i was simply the flight out there. I haven’t been that far from home before and experiencing a new airport was in itself part of the fun. I mean, Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport has outdoor terminals and gates! I’m sure it’s not as awesome as I’m making it out to be, but it was new to me.

Vidframe Min Top
Vidframe Min Bottom

Yesterday, a reader named Timothy B sent in a request for me to do a write-up on the “airport terminal buses” of Washington Dulles International Airport. Now, I’ve never been to Dulles, but I have seen airport buses. The ones driving around Chicago O’Hare International Airport are usually just transit buses. They’re great, but nothing too amazing. Timothy asked about how the Dulles buses are built, how they change their height, and if they’re road legal. Wait, what? Then I threw some search terms at Google and had my mind blown.

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Paul Houle

How did I not know about mobile lounges? These are no typical airport transport machines.

The Airport Of The Future

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection LC-DIG-krb-00768

To understand why the mobile lounge exists, we must rewind our calendars back, far back. The year is 1958. The Boeing 707 took its first flight the year prior and will go into service in October 1958. The Douglas DC-8 just made its first flight. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the de Havilland Comet has been in service since 1952. You didn’t need a crystal ball to figure out that the future of air travel was going to involve jets, and thus, aviation was entering the Jet Age.

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Prior to this, airports were built to service the aircraft of the day. They weren’t built to serve the new larger jet aircraft. This is where Finnish-American architect and industrial designer Eero Saarinen comes in. He’s known for designs including the Gateway Arch, the famed TWA Flight Center at John F. Kennedy International Airport, and even the General Motors Technical Center. According to his book, Eero Saarinen: Shaping The Future, post-World War II aviation brought challenges. Many airports were located in or just outside of cities, which created problems. As Saarinen writes, Washington National Airport was located just three and a half miles from our nation’s Capitol. Its location in the city created problems, and more problems were introduced when jets started landing at the airport in the 1950s.

Living so close to a field means dealing with tons of noise, sometimes vibration, and sometimes fumes. Saarinen writes that with the advent of jet travel, it was imperative for airports to move further out from cities. The Federal Aviation Administration, then the freshly-formed successor to the Civil Aeronautics Administration, agreed with this notion. The FAA decided to replace Washington National with what would become Dulles International. After a series of studies, the FAA decided that the new airport would be placed roughly 25 miles from the city core in Chantilly, Virginia.

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection LC-DIG-krb-00713

Saarinen’s office was already studying how to improve airport operations with Trans World Airlines. The prior five decades of aviation led to the rapid development of the airport concept. What started off as simple fields grew into hangars, which grew into stands. Those stands gave way to airport terminals, which grew gates and “fingers” to reach aircraft. Over time, those airports also gained concourses, concessions, and waiting areas. For travelers, this meant that flying went from simply arriving at the airport and boarding a plane to arriving, doing a bunch of walking and waiting, then finally boarding an aircraft. Airlines and designers figured there had to be a better way.

In designing Dulles, Saarinen’s office focused on the needs of a jet-dominated airport. Thus, Dulles would be the first American airport built around jets. In designing Dulles, Saarinen used concepts now seen at many airports, such as two different levels, one for departing passengers and one for arriving passengers. The airport was also designed with expansion in mind as well as peak traffic periods. Saarinen saw Dulles as a threefold design problem: the airport had to express the optimism brought by the Jet Age, a nod to federal architecture, and the airport had to serve as a sort of gateway to the nation.

Diagram
Eero Saarinen

One of Saarinen’s more fascinating innovations at Dulles was the concept of the mobile lounge. In his design, the Dulles terminal was separated from the tarmac and the airport’s operations by about 4,000 feet. Planes would fill up on fuel and get serviced out there, while the passengers enjoyed luxury in the distant terminal. To reduce the distance a passenger would have to walk, Saarinen did away with the clunky gates and fingers. Instead, passengers would enter the terminal, drop off larger bags, then go shopping. When it was about time to take off, the passengers wouldn’t walk to gates. Instead, they would board a luxurious mobile lounge that would whisk them away to a waiting plane. The passengers would then seamlessly transfer from the mobile lounge to their waiting aircraft.

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Eero Saarinen was so sure that this was going to be the future of air travel that he promoted the concept with an animated short by famed designers Charles and Ray Eames:

In 1962, the mobile lounges were put into service at Dulles. Mobile lounges would also appear at Quebec’s Montréal-Trudeau International Airport, the international terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport, St. Louis Lambert International Airport, Charles de Gaulle Airport in France, King Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Toronto Pearson Airport, Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, Acapulco International Airport, Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport, and Mexico City Airport.

I’m sure I’ve missed some airports that used mobile lounges, but the point is that a lot of airports adopted Saarinen’s concept. Most airports have stopped using mobile lounges, but you can still find them in some form of use at Dulles, Philadelphia, and Montréal. They’ve largely been replaced by concourses, extendable jet bridges, and airport train systems. We’ll get back to that in a moment.

The Mobile Lounge

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection LC-DIG-krb-00775

There are a few variants of the mobile lounge. The two main variants are known as the Passenger Transfer Vehicle (PTV) and the Plane-Mate. The vehicles are actually an unlikely pairing of Chrysler and Budd. You already know Chrysler, but Budd comes from another Autopian interest in trains. Founded in 1912 and bankrupt in 2014, Philadelphia’s Budd Company was most famous for its stainless steel passenger railcars.

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The base vehicle was developed by Chrysler and when new, featured a pair of engines making 172 HP each. I haven’t found the exact engines Chrysler used to power these, but each unit weighed in at a chunky 37 tons and cost the airline $232,733 to buy, or $2,359,346 in today’s money. Our reader asked about road legality and unfortunately, there’s no chance of seeing one on a highway. A mobile lounge measured 54 feet long, 16 feet wide, 17.5 feet high, and had a top speed of 26 mph. So, even if you did miss low bridges, you weren’t getting anywhere fast. Original units had about a 90-passenger capacity.

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Balthazar Korab for Chrysler

As I said, Chrysler developed the mobile lounge vehicle. Budd’s work was giving the vehicle a body, which is why a mobile lounge looks like the unholy pairing of a subway car with a bus. In operation, a mobile lounge will raise its own height to match the doors of an aircraft, then it will deploy its own ramp for passengers to transfer between the mobile lounge and the plane. Later updates to the idea saw the ramp changed to an extendable accordion as you see at the end of a jet bridge.

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Philadelphia International Airport

The Plane-Mate is an evolution of the original PTV. Where a PTV raises itself using a large scissor jack, the Plane-Mate uses a screw drive system. The easiest way to tell the difference between a PTV mobile lounge and a Plane-Mate mobile lounge is to look at the roof. Plane-Mates have two towers housing the screw drives. WTOP News also notes that Plane-Mates are larger. They tower 24 feet off of the ground, carry 150 passengers, and weigh 92,500 pounds loaded, compared to around 100,000 pounds for the PTV.

WTOP gives even more interesting facts. The original PTVs were put into service in 1962 and today, they carry 120 people. The Plane-Mates were built between 1971 and 1981.

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection LC-DIG-krb-00771

Currently, Dulles operates about 18 PTVs and 29 Plane-Mates. The oldest vehicles of the lot, the PTVs, are just as old as the airport is. Reportedly, their last overhaul was over 28 years ago and their last engine overhaul was over 18 years ago. Today, the mobile lounges at Dulles use diesel power, though their speeds are now limited to a leisurely 20 mph. They reportedly drink 260,000 gallons of diesel each year and cost $2.5 million each year to keep running.

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As DCist wrote this week, a challenge in keeping the mobile lounges alive is the fact that they don’t have manufacturer support. Budd is no longer around and, apparently, Chrysler doesn’t refurbish these 61-year-old custom-built beasts. The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority committee approved $16 million to rebuild and re-engineer just two mobile lounges from the ground up.

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection LC-DIG-krb-00770

If the committee likes what it sees, the rest of the mobile lounges will get rebuilt to the tune of $160 million total. It’s unclear what the rebuilt mobile lounges will be powered by. In the past, proposals called for the people movers to go electric.

Why Mobile Lounges Largely Failed

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection LC-DIG-krb-00772

There are a number of theories as to why mobile lounges didn’t really catch on. Saarinen cites the purchase price in his book. Airlines weren’t that interested in paying such huge costs to eliminate fingers from gates. There was also the invention of the extendable jet bridge by Frank Der Yuen, which made those fingers obsolete. Further hampering the mobile lounge was the invention of the moving walkway and airports embracing local trains and satellite concourses. Of course, you could also just board a far cheaper bus.

Jim Wilding, former president of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, gave this explanation to Atlas Obscura:

“Part of the answer is that automated train systems offer a more cost-effective way of moving passengers, especially in the area of labor cost,” he says. But there is another, less quantifiable notion. Passengers arriving off a long-haul flight seem to see a ride on the mobile lounge, once described as a paragon of luxury, as a burden. It is a transformation that has overtaken nearly every part of the air travel experience, which used to be an excuse to put yourself in the hands of a friendly ticket agent or flight attendant. Now, travelers prize what little autonomy they have—choosing to stand, say, on the moving walkway.

“Said more simply, they tend to resent being captured for an additional period of time,” says Wilding, “when all they want is to be let free to be on their way.”

Mobile Lounge Washington Dulles
Christopher Ziemnowicz

Whatever the reason, the mobile lounge seemed like a neat concept, but it wasn’t the future of air travel as predicted. That said, you could argue that mobile lounges came pretty close. The final variant of the PTV is the NASA Crew Transport Vehicle, which NASA used to transport astronauts from orbiters to crew facilities. Much like the animation shows far above, the mobile lounges ferried people to space-bound shuttles.

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Today, the mobile lounges at Dulles serve a reduced role. Passengers get from the main terminal to the A, B, and C gates through the airport’s AeroTrain system, eliminating the need for mobile lounges to get passengers to aircraft. The mobile lounges are instead used to cart people between the main terminal and Concourse D, where international flights are. Note that the lounges don’t get people to the planes themselves, just between the main terminal and the concourse. Though, you could use a mobile lounge to get off of a plane if your plane has to park someplace at Dulles where there isn’t a jet bridge.

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NASA

As for why Dulles is planning on throwing $160 million into a seemingly dead-end technology? Well, the AeroTrain was at some unknown point in the future supposed to reach Concourse D, but in recent years, expanding the train was reportedly thought to be too expensive and would take too long. So, the mobile lounges will continue to do their jobs.

A Product Of An Optimistic Past

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Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Balthazar Korab Collection LC-DIG-krb-00774

I think the best part about these mobile lounges are that they started off as this crazy idea of what the Jet Age could do to travel, then they were actually built.

Today, the mobile lounge largely has been replaced by various technologies that make navigating an airport easier. Now, over 61 years on, they probably seem out of place for many travelers. But they’re really a relic of an optimistic past. The mobile lounge was part of a dream where a traveler strutted into an airport and was delivered to their plane in luxury. That dream is long gone.

Still, I like to think about some of the absolutely colossal airports I’ve been to. The thought of a lounge that takes me directly to my plane still seems fun, even if the reality may not be as great.

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[Ed note: I’ve flown out of Dulles internationally a couple of times and have had the chance to use the mobile lounges. They’re strange, absolutely, and probably less efficient than a train. Still, I was so excited to get on one the first time and still love them. Whenever I travel through Dulles, even if I’m not flying internationally, I stop by to stare at them. I’m hoping I can take my daughter on one because the feeling of driving in a room, a dozen feet off the ground is unique. – MH]

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Balthazar Korab for Chrysler
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Bill McCoskey
Bill McCoskey
9 months ago

I grew up in the DC area, and Dulles was the default airport for most of the family’s flights. Just a few month before the grand opening of Dulles, my dad [an engineer & car guy] took my brother and I around the barriers and drove up the Dulles Access road to a high point about a mile or 2 before the airport, and we could see that soaring roof quite easily. We could also se several Mobile Lounges running around the paved areas, I assume they were testing them.

As dad was a fairly high level Federal Government employee with the DOD, he [and the family] was invited to a pre-opening event for Government officials, where we were able to ride in a Mobile Lounge. As a 9 year old car nut, this was an incredible opportunity that I’ve never forgot.

Years later in 1976 I was back at Dulles to pick up my latest toy: one of the ‘next size smaller’ people mover that was commonly seen at Dulles: The Oldsmobile Toronado Jetway 707 airport limousine, a front wheel drive. tri-axle, 8 door station wagon, with a rear door for luggage. This rode on a 185 inch wheelbase, had 5 rows of seats and could sit 15 people in reasonable comfort, with their luggage.

Executive limousine had the contract to provide limo service to/from Dulles, and when American Quality Coach developed the big Jetway 707, Executive bought 6 [or possibly 8] of these huge wagons. As I collected vintage limousines and got to know the owner of Executive Limousines after buying his favorite car; a 1955 Chrysler Imperial limousine, when he told me about how badly those Toronados failed to provide reliable service and he wanted to sell them all, and he offered me my choice of any one in the fleet really, really cheap [that should have been a warning, but I wanted one], I ended up owning a Jetway 707, one of the worst vehicles ever made when it came to reliability. To see what a Jetway 707 looks like, here is a great link:

https://www.hagerty.com/media/car-profiles/toronado-based-jetway-707-oldsmobile-limo/

Robert Swartz
Robert Swartz
11 months ago

Haven’t had a chance to ride one of these for years, but always liked them. And ++ for including the Eames film.

The Dodge Sweptline stair truck is an added Mopar touch. I assume that photo was to show the difference?

Sean Ellery
Sean Ellery
11 months ago

In Boryspil Kiev we were simply bussed out to the plane (Air France) on the tarmac, disembarked, and then we stood at the bottom of the stairs in -15 degree C February weather all because some drunk assed bastard that had previously boarded had sat in the wrong seat and refused to move. Meanwhile the nice warm bus had already driven back.

After 20 minutes of the flight crew arguing and pleading with the drunk bastard, some of the other male passengers that had already boarded simply grabbed him by the collar and belt buckle and basically threw him into his correct seat and told him to stay there or risk getting *%$#@ thumped. (Well that’s how my wife translated the Ukrainian for me later)

Only then we were allowed to get our now frozen butts onto the plane, and we could take off. Drunk bastard promptly passed out and slept for the entire flight to Paris.

Postscrpt: By the time we made it to Singapore (32C) and then finally Perth Australia where it had been a 42C day (!) we were thoroughly cooking in our warm winter clothing!!! The flight delay at Kiev meant that we never had anytime to get changed during our layover time in either Paris or Singapore before we had to get to our connecting flights.

(In Paris, Air France told everyone to stay seated once we’d landed, called our names specifically and got us off first on the ‘wrong’ side of the plane to the jetway, into a van – to the evil looks of everyone else – and then driven at breakneck pace across CdeG to the other Terminal by an Air France employee to make our next flight)

Last edited 11 months ago by Sean Ellery
Austin Vail
Austin Vail
11 months ago

THIS is why I read The Autopian. I’d never heard of these before and now I love them. The originals are by far the most aesthetically appealing, I don’t know if it’s just me but the 1950s industrial look combined with midcentury modernist style looks really cool and exciting, while the 70s update is just a minimalist box. Still cool, but not nearly as cool as its predecessor.

I kinda hope they do get an electric conversion if that’s what it takes to keep them in service, they seem like an ideal use case for it given that they don’t travel very far and should have plenty of down time to charge, plus there’s a huge roof for solar panels.

If they don’t get renewed… I hope some eccentric millionaire who owns a bunch of land in the middle of nowhere buys one and converts it into a drivable house/cabin/lodge. Imagine roaming about the dessert or some huge ranch in one of these, with the extendable walkways converted into balconies for an epic view. They might not be street legal, but one of these would be right at home in places where that’s not a concern.

Jay-Michael Sutton
Jay-Michael Sutton
11 months ago

Fuck Dulles. I hate that airport. National or BWI. Hell, I’ve taken the train to fly out of Philly to avoid Dulles. That’s place is horrible.

Top Dead Center
Top Dead Center
11 months ago

Good article Mercedes! As a kid these were cool, tho 1980s just seemed cooler (also because kid). I’ve been on a few of these of recent at IAD or PHL. Unique indeed, yet also annoying because it’s just another step in the process of my trip and more crowds… I always thought the visibility tails on the top were kinda funny looking, like some sort of weird rudder…

Last edited 11 months ago by Top Dead Center
Bradillac
Bradillac
11 months ago

All in all I’ve been thumbs down on these things. There’s no luxury to them. It takes several of them to load up a plane. They’re slow, and I particularly find them irritating to be loaded onto one after an international flight for all the reasons stated. It’s equally bad when you’re left at a “bus gate” inbound from somewhere. But at least a bus can load (usually 2 doors) and move faster.

Andy Carlson
Andy Carlson
11 months ago

I grew up about ten minutes from Dulles so all my early experience flying was with these things (before the train). As a kid I thought they were cool but as i got older that bit in the article is right: it’s just one more place you have to wait and then file out in line.

The trains have the advantage of more/wider doors so when you get where you need to go you can get off faster. These things have just two single person sized doors on either side of the driver seat so you have to wait in line to get off. Also describing them as “mobile lounges” is wildly optimistic —maybe in the sixties.

Still my contempt is probably mostly from excess familiarity. Objectively I can see how they are pretty Autopian.

Arthur Flax
Arthur Flax
11 months ago

There is one small error in this story, and Mercedes can be forgiven because it’s not even noted in Wikipedia.

National, now Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, didn’t have jet aircraft service until 1966. They did, of course, have turbo prop service.

I know this because I was eight years old, living near DC in 1966, and having jets land and take off at National was a really big deal. The three television stations in the region covered it heavily, and of course as a kid, I was really excited there was another local airport with Jets!

Really good story Mercedes !

Last edited 11 months ago by Arthur Flax
Kevin B
Kevin B
11 months ago

During my first time through Dulles imagine my surprise when seeing the sign pointing to my gate, going through the automatic doors, and finding myself on a bus. Then finding myself riding on the tarmac, competing with aircraft, fuel trucks and luggage carriers. Truly a unique experience.

Casey Pickell
Casey Pickell
11 months ago

I’ve lived in DC for about 10 years now and I’ve ridden in these many times…I always thought it was truly bizzare/cool – thanks for doing an article on it, good to know all of this about them. Since they only go to the international terminal, I’ve always thought to a foreigner that has come to the US for the first time, having to get in what is essentially an airport monster truck is a truly ‘merica ass way to be greeted to the country’s capital…

Would probably be nice if they were converted to electric though, the fumes can get kinda strong in there when they idle with the doors open for a while…

Ward William
Ward William
11 months ago

Is it just me thinking these would make kickass RVs?

Phuzz
Phuzz
11 months ago
Reply to  Ward William

I think the 26mph top speed would be limiting.
Mind you, I do remember reading an article about someone who’d built a more modern airport scissor-lift truck into an RV, so he could raise his entire living space into the air.
Here we are: https://www.theautopian.com/a-pilot-turned-an-airport-catering-truck-into-a-sky-high-mechanical-treehouse/

Austin Vail
Austin Vail
11 months ago
Reply to  Ward William

Unfortunately it’s probably too wide, even if you were able to make it go faster. But yes, I’d love to convert one into a living space, even if it could only be driven in places like the dessert or on a colossal ranch.

Ben
Ben
11 months ago

Looking at the interior picture gives me mild anxiety. I just got off a plane where I was crammed in with a bunch of strangers, I don’t want to be crammed into a bus with a bunch of strangers immediately after. I tend to avoid airport trains and buses for that reason too if I have time to just walk. Also, walking between concourses in Atlanta is actually a lot of fun because they have art and history exhibits in the tunnels.

Luxobarge
Luxobarge
11 months ago

==Our reader asked about road legality==

Hey, be cool, Sheryl.

Douglas Lain
Douglas Lain
11 months ago

I’ve loved these things for years! I only got to go on them once, but it was a bizarre experience.
I had NO idea these were a thing. i got told to go wait in a waiting room for my flight, i got in there with a bunch of people. Eventually a guy comes in, opens a door i hadn’t noticed and DRIVES THE ROOM AWAY!
It was SO cool and SO weird. I’ll never forget it. It was honestly one of the highlights of my (admittedly small) travel life.

PlatinumZJ
PlatinumZJ
11 months ago

My mom is very nervous about travel – she gets motion sickness easily, and has issues with confined spaces. She really liked the mobile lounges at Dulles, and is most definitely not a fan of the AeroTrain replacement. (This is partially my fault; it was under construction, and based on the signs we entered what I thought was the last car. Turns out the train was at the end of the completed line, and just reversed direction, so we were actually up front.)

Alan Christensen
Alan Christensen
11 months ago

I’ve never flown through Dulles myself, but we used to go there to drop off and pick up my father. Thirteen-year-old me was amazed by the mobile lounges. Self propelled buildings on scissor lifts!

Extremely-Good-Opinions
Extremely-Good-Opinions
11 months ago

yeah in Montreal I was stuck on one on an arriving flight for about a half hour because it was stuck in some weird aiport gate jam. I don’t want that! Once I get jolted out of my seat and shuffled around to a *different* enclosure the wait really feels different than just being stuck on the plane. It’s too tentalizing

Josh Turner
Josh Turner
11 months ago

People in DC like nothing more than to complain about Dulles and these mobile lounges. Those people are nuts.

Dulles is actually a great airport. It’s relatively easy to get to (compared to airports in other big cities), it’s gorgeous to look at, and it actually works pretty well.

And the mobile lounges are great! Being able to see the planes is really cool. The AeroTrain sucks by comparison — you have to walk way more, and ride underground so that you can’t see anything. I love those things.

RustyBritmobile
RustyBritmobile
11 months ago

At Dulles a few weeka ago, I noticed and was puzzled by the odd identifiers on Plane-Mates: IA, IN, WY …, Then it struck me – state abbreviations. Must only have 50 of them. PTVs have just one boring letter.

Rad Barchetta
Rad Barchetta
11 months ago

I was a little surprised to hear about Budd’s demise. It was pretty recent (2014). One of my first projects as a budding (pun intended) engineer was a laser cutting cell that chopped Ford Explorer side panels in half to use on the Sport Trac. Our customer was Budd and the year was 1998.

FlyingMonstera
FlyingMonstera
11 months ago

When I was 8 and living in DC these were amazingly cool. When I was 28 and visiting they were a throwback. When I was 38, on business, in a hurry and they broke down, they were WTF. But back to 8 year old me, seeing how far I could run up the buttresses and eating cashews in the British Airways lounge, saying bye to my dad but only for a fortnight, Dulles is the most beautiful airport in the world.

Squirrelmaster
Squirrelmaster
11 months ago

Like everyone else, these things always amuse/fascinate/annoy me when flying through Dulles. I enjoy seeing them slowly scurry along the tarmac like beetles a lot more than riding in them.

Idiotking
Idiotking
11 months ago

Thanks for this fascinating deep dive, Mercedes. I’ve flown out of Dulles twice internationally and always wondered why I was on one of these things (and I can relate to the feeling of “just get me off this thing and into the concourse”) and why they are still used.

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