The Mobile Lounges at Dulles International Airport

Recently, I have been traveling to Washington D.C. via Washington Dulles International Airport and have begun to appreciate the fine architecture of the airport. Built between 1958 and 1966 by the engineering firm of Amman and Whitney the terminal building, control tower, and service buildings were designed by Architect Eero Saarinen who claimed it was “the best thing I have ever done.”

This was the first US airport designed for jets and so there was no precedent for Saarinen to follow. One of the most distinctive features of the airport was the lack of any building extensions onto the airfield for aircraft loading. Instead passengers traveled from the terminal to their planes, which could be waiting over a mile away, on strange vehicles called Mobile Lounges and Plane-Mates. Saarinen viewed these mobile lounges as an extension of the airport. They were mobile buildings that served as transportation. Apparently when the lounges were first introduced they had a bar onboard and it was possible to drink cocktails while being transported to your plane!

A Mobile Lounge

Mobile lounges were constructed by the Chrysler Corporation in association with the Budd Company. They are 54-foot long, 16-foot wide, 17 1/2-foot high, and were originally specified to carry 102 passengers, 71 of them seated, directly from the terminal to the aircraft on the ramp. This was intended to protect the passengers from weather, jet noise and blast, and also eliminate long walking distances. Passengers had to walk only 200 feet once they entered the terminal until they were seated in the lounge for the short trip directly to their aircraft.

A Plane-Mate

These vehicles are still in operation at the airport today. The Mobile Lounge / Plane-Mate system seems to work very well. It has allowed the airport to grow at phenomenal rates – just over 25% in 1999. I am curious why the system never caught on. It obviously works, but miles of terminal buildings with endless moving walkways leading to telescopic boarding ramps have become the norm – Why? The only thing I can think of is that the operation costs of a Mobile Lounge system are high and the benefits, like support for airport expansion, are long-term. As a result they may fair badly when compared with the moving walkway systems that I imagine are cheaper to operate if inflexible.

In 1999 the Airports Authority Board of Directors approved the concept for an underground rail system on the airport that will eventually replace the current Mobile Lounges. So, sadly the Mobile Lounges are on their way out. However if you want to see what the future looked like in the late 1950′s theres still time. And, if you’re really inspired, the Airport Authority is currently advertising for Mobile Lounge and Plane-mate operators, pay is between $14.95 and $19.41 an hour and the job description is bizarre to say the least!

In mating with aircraft, employs appropriate operating procedure in keeping with the characteristics of the aircraft (e.g., location of projecting fins and sensors), preferred policy of the particular airline and the structure of the lounge.

This entry was posted in Globalization, Technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.
  • John

    The Plane-Mate 2150 by Accessair Systems Inc

    “Why bring the plane to an already congested terminal when you can bring the terminal to the plane?”

    Accessair are apparently making a plane-mate vehicle today. They have a marketing video that lists the following benefits

    Summary of Benefits

    • Boost your capacity
    • Avoid terminal congestions
    • Park aircraft where its most convenient and use the plane-mate to cut the time and cost of transferring passengers in half
    • Unlike busses passenger are kept off the tarmac thus eliminating the cost of security and stair fleet personnel
    • A one-operator plane-mate can transport 150 passengers
    • A 747 can be deplaned in 5 minutes
    • More gates per linear foot of terminal
    • Passengers spend less time walking and more time shopping
    • Avoid the high costs of nose-in and push-out procedures
    • Lower fuel costs and taxi time
    • Reduce incidents around crowded terminal buildings
    • Give ground vehicles unrestricted access to planes
  • A Friend

    They are very weird. None the less, I would love to travel in one just to see what it is like. I might apply for that job, just for the fun of it. Do you think they would employ me???

  • Duane Kennen

    I have the Chrysler studio model of the Mobil Lounge. Approx 15″ long. I don’t believe another exists.

  • Megan

    These are great photos. do you know where they are from? who the photographer is?

  • John

    This idea did catch on. Similar transporting lounges are used at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. They are adjustable in height and so can deposit passengers at airport entry gates with synchronized doors and at varying heights. No smell of diesel fuel either!


  • Magnus

    The system works great! Sure impressed me… But what are the “wings” on the roof for? Looks peculiar indeed

  • Chris

    I think the wings are so pilots can see these things. They do cross the path of planes as they roll to and fro. I’ve flown out of Dulles more times than I can count. I have never experienced a problem with the “funny busses” as my kids call the mobile lounges.

  • Jeff

    The ‘wings’ on the roof provide a channel for the ‘legs’ to go up and down when the lounge raises or lowers.

  • Daniel

    funny is a good word. what about people who are late for a flight and cabin personel? not very flexible in my opinion.

  • Peter

    The mobile lounges would be nice if Dulles used them as they were designed. But they don’t and Dulles has to be one of the worst airports in the world to use – with Hearthrow a close second. Dulles rapidly outgrew the waiting area and gates for these mobile lounges, so instead of expanding these gates (which they have finally done, but not enough by over 100%) they instead built two “midfield terminals”. So all these lounges do is transport you from the main terminal to the midfield terminal, adding 10 minutes to your travel time. It doesn’t help that the midfield terminals are so long that you are exhausted if your gate should unfortunately be the last one. And forget about cocktails on the lounge. Today the oeprators try to cram as many people as possible into these crappy little sardine cans; whatever pleasures you enjoyed while traveling in business class from Frankfurt are rapidly erased as you suffer in this horrid contraption. Worse, the last few times I landed at Dulles the customs queue was so long that we were stuck onboard the mobile lounge for an additional 20 minutes at the gate until there was enough room to get off. Too bad there wasn’t a fire marshal on board. The concept behind Dulles airport and the mobile lounges was excellent. It’s just too bad that Dulles was built in Virginia, a state universally recognized by its inability to develop its transportation infrastructure in keeping with its unrestrained growth policies. I recommend BWI for international flights. Their terminal is about 30 minutes faster in and out, hardly any queue for security or customs, and a large parking garage inside the terminal horseshoe. The new daily garage is a dream (but they should heat the waiting room) and the new shuttle busses have it right – luggage stands opposite the large double entry doors. Washington National (DCA) is also great if you can find a flight to your destination, and it has better restaurants (including Sushi and a Legal Seafoods) than nearly any other airport. But Dulles? Avoid if at all possible!

  • Bob Brown

    Does anyone know of any other North American airports that still operate these vehicles?

    • Tratrl197412

      The main purpose of a plane-mate  at one time was to facilitate the ground level terminals as you had to walk from the gate or terminal to the mobile stair. The plane-mate eliminated weather and handicap problems. So basically you entered the plane-mate at ground level and was driven to your plane and the plane-mate elevated to the aircraft door height.

  • Manuela Aguirre

    Please, I need to know what is the price in USA of one mobile lounges like the Dulles Airport. They are 54-foot long, 16-foot wide, 17 1/2-foot high, and were originally specified to carry 102 passengers, 71 of them seated

  • Manuela Aguirre

    The mobile lounges were state of the art 40 years how we have progressed!Trust me..if these lounges were so great the rest of the country would’nt use automated trains and moving sidealks. Dulles is only about 20-30 years behind most major airports.

  • David

    Does anyone know of any other North American airports that still operate these vehicles? MEX, or Mexico City, still uses these.

    • Tratrl197412

       JFK, Lambert Field-St. Louis, Mo. McCarron- Vegas

  • Chris

    Being as I am, a very frequent traveler into Dulles, I find that these mobile lounges are actually very interesting. In fact, recent studies conducted at Dulles, Reagan, And Baltimore Washington, have found that passengers actually prefer these mobile lounges as opposed to regular busses, and moving sidewalks. Contrary to popular belief, most people dont like moving sidewalks, as the loose there balance easy, and not to mention if one is shut down for maintenence, the walk is very exausting. High speed rail services between terminals is very modern and convenient……..but also very costly, and the wheels are replaced often, causing difficulties in scheduling maintenece, and moving passenegers. Ultimately, for an airport of Dulles/Washington’s size, I believe the mobile lounges are the best assets for Dulles right now. Not to mention all the other construction, and renovation there doing on Dulles at this Point. Thanks for reading my opinion.

  • Pingback: Connecting through IAD w/ international arrival - FlyerTalk Forums

  • Pingback: Ask The Pilot - Page 370