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 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.

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Published on February 16, 2011