Did Washington Dulles get it right with the mobile lounge?

Mar 8, 2020

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When mobile lounges were introduced as part of Eero Saarinen’s design for Washington Dulles International Airport in 1962, they were heralded as a novel way to cut the distance travelers had to walk in the terminal between the curb and their aircraft.

It would not be a stretch to think there was an epidemic of walking at America’s airports after watching the first few minutes of a promotional video for the mobile lounge produced by Charles and Ray Eames for Saarinen in 1958.

“The average passenger… [will walk] about five times the length of a football field,” the narrator said. “Walks, which were once filled with romantic anticipation of adventure, will become more and more irritating.”

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Enter Saarinen’s unique design for Dulles: a single, rectangular building with a sweeping roof and transparency from curbside to tarmac. Circulation was simple, a passenger entered from the curb with ticket counters in front of them, checked in, and then proceed past the counters to an opposite wall lined with “gates” — where mobile lounges docked to take passengers to their plane.

What is now required is that some part of the terminal building be able to detach itself and move out to the aircraft. It would seem that this might be the departure lounge itself,” the video explained.

Unfortunately, the mobile lounges did not age well. They had been designed for an era of 100-seat jets, like the Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 — and not jumbo jets, ushered in by the Boeing 747 in 1970, that often sat more than 300 passengers. It is unclear if they ever conveyed a “feeling of luxury” to harried travelers.

 

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The mobile lounges became particular to Dulles and a few other airports. Soon the design concept was relegated to the dust bin of history.

Or was it?

While the problem Saarinen aimed to tackle with his design for Dulles was long walks in the terminal, contemporary airport designers must deal with a different dilemma. Ever-larger aircraft need more tarmac space than ever before, while the space needed in the terminal for 300 about-to-depart passengers has remained static. The wingspan of an Airbus A350 is 212 feet — nearly 20 feet longer than the first 747s (though on par with the 747-400).

“There’s a real mismatch between the building, the architecture, and the airplane,” said HOK design principal Peter Ruggiero at a discussion on the future of airport architecture held by the Chicago Architecture Center in February.

Ruggiero, who worked on the new Terminal B at New York LaGuardia (LGA), thinks the answer to this mismatch is something of a return to Saarinen’s idea for Dulles — separate the plane and terminal.

Related: First concourse of LaGuardia’s New Terminal B opens

What if the plane was parked out on the tarmac away from the terminal, and the terminal was much bigger but didn’t have any gates?” said Ruggiero. “What if [that terminal] had opportunities to get on a really smart vehicle — not a mobile lounge like at Dulles… [but] a modified version of a hyperloop, that took you from the terminal to a fixed position and you got on a plane.”

Hyperloop is a transport concept that utilizes sealed, low-pressure tunnels to quickly move vehicles at high speeds. The idea is best known for a proposal put forward by Tesla-founder Elon Musk, though multiple parties are independently working on the concept, including Virgin Hyperloop One.

A Virgin Hyperloop One vehicle being loaded into the vacuum tube for a test run. (Photo courtesy of Virgin Hyperloop One)

 

The personal-rapid-transit hyperloop concept outlined by Ruggiero, if implemented, could see single, centralized terminals with restaurants, shops, lounges and other amenities for travelers replace fields of concourses at airports. Passengers, when ready to head to their flight, could descend to a station, scan their boarding passes — or just their faces — and board a specific vehicle that would whisk them to a parking position somewhere on the airport’s apron where they would board their flight.

Dulles lounges

Mobile lounges, as dated as they are, continue to be in use at Dulles. While they rarely carry travelers directly to or from their planes these days, they do connect Concourse D to the main terminal, as well as ferry passengers arriving from international flights to the customs hall.

The operator of Dulles, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), has talked about retiring and replacing the lounges since at least the early 1990s. Later that decade, reports in The Washington Post indicate the authority considered plans to replace the lounges with the AeroTrain and a separate “underground people mover” for international arrivals.

However, the slump in air traffic after 9/11 forced MWAA to cut its capital plans at Dulles. The AeroTrain, once planned as a circular line, was truncated to its current “J” shape, and a replacement for the “temporary” Concourse C/D and international arrivals people mover were shelved, according to reports.

SLUG: me-aerotrain DATE: January 25, 2010 NEG NUMBER: 211866 LOCATION: Dulles International Airport PHOTOGRAPHER: GERALD MARTINEAU, for TWP CAPTION: We photograph the new Aerotrain at Dulles Airport that will begin transporting passengers tomorrow. Photo shows a train that has arrived at gate A.
The AeroTrain at Washington Dulles airport. (Image by GERALD MARTINEAU via Getty Images)

 

By 2006, The Washington Post reported that the mobile lounges would continue to be used for “some international flights and by some airlines to take passengers directly to planes” even after the AeroTrain opened.

“They offer us a great degree of flexibility,” then MWAA executive vice president Margaret McKeough told the paper, speaking about the future of mobile lounges at the time.

By 2009, when the AeroTrain opened, it was settled. Dulles would keep 36 mobile lounges to serve Concourse D, international arrivals and the occasional need to ferry passengers directly to or from their plane.

Today, MWAA has no imminent plans to retire the lounges, spokesman Micah Lillard told TPG.

And who knows, maybe that shelved underground people mover idea eventually could see new life as some form of hyperloop rapid transit connection, letting the mobile lounge concept live on at Dulles in a thoroughly 21st century format.

Featured image by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

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