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.
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.
How did I not know about mobile lounges? These are no typical airport transport machines.
The Airport Of The Future
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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
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.
[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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