I spent last week, as I typically do two or three times a year, in Denver, doing the nation’s business. I arrived home this afternoon. As has been necessary for ninety percent of my flights in and out of Washington Dulles International Airport since my first flight in 1985, I exited the plane and headed for a mobile lounge to get back to the terminal.
You hardly see mobile lounges anymore. Dulles International Airport is probably the last major airport where most of its passengers need to use a mobile lounge to get to and from their gates. I suspect most passengers consider the mobile lounges archaic and a damned nuisance. It’s enough just getting through the often intimidating security lines at Dulles. After that you go through the additional hassle of getting to your gate via a mobile lounge. Typically, you must wait in the mobile lounge for a few minutes before it takes you to your concourse and gate.
For about a year now, travelers needing to get to the B concourse have had the option of taking a walkway to the terminal. An Aerotrain system is planned for 2009. When it is complete, these mobile lounges will be unnecessary. I imagine they will keep a few around in case they need to embark or disembark passengers directly to a jet, but most of them will become as obsolete as, well, trolleys. They might as well sell them for scrap metal. (I am hoping the airport authority will donate one to the National Air and Space Museum Annex, also at Dulles Airport, so I can show my grandchildren what they were like.)
I have always considered these mobile lounges to be interesting. They were never pretty but in truth, they rarely added more than a few minutes to your commute to and from the terminal. The planned AeroTrain system at Dulles will be entirely underground. This pattern is true of most of these airport trains. While fast and efficient, they lack something. Specifically what these underground trains lack is a view.
Except for when an airplane is taxiing, you do not really have a chance to experience an airport except from inside its terminal and concourses. What is neat about a mobile lounge is that it takes you out onto the tarmac and rapidly moves you between concourses. You zip by a dozen jets a minute, from lowly commuter planes to massive and majestic Boeing 747s, which are still a major presence at Dulles International Airport. Fuel trucks and baggage cars can also be seen cruising on the tarmac. In short, you get a mobile view of the airport impossible to get any other way unless you are employed at the airport. Each mobile lounge, which can carry up to 102 passengers and is 54 feet long and 16 feet wide, comes with large windows on both sides of the lounge, offering a fast moving perspective of the airport.
Sadly, most passengers on the mobile lounge are busy talking into their cell phones or fidgeting because they are wondering if they will make it to their gate in time. Many of these passengers are inured to the mobile lounge experience. They should not be. Soon the mobile lounge experience, common to passengers at Dulles International since its opening in 1962, will be just a fading memory.
It used to be that you could visit airports for leisure. You could climb up into the terminal tower or walk out on an observation deck and take in the grandeur of the airport. All the while, you could marvel in the delicate ballet of planes taking off, landing and taxiing. If such a place exists at Dulles, I am not aware of it. Moreover, visiting the airport is expensive. Hourly parking is so cost prohibitive that only the most fanatical bother to meet their parties at the airport. Even if they wanted to meet their parties at the gate, they are not allowed beyond the security checkpoint. You typically end up meeting your party at curbside.
Mobile lounges are the next best thing for the airport tourist. To my mind, there are few better showcases of industry and organization than airports. A generation or two ago, if you wanted to see American industry, you took factory tours. Today, you visit airports. Granted, with overbooking and increased numbers of flights, sometimes an airport seems more inefficient than efficient. Yet the modern airport experience overall is remarkably efficient and well engineered. Each is its own little city. Without the mobile lounge, my perspective of the grandeur of the airport markedly diminishes.
I may be a small minority, but I will shed a tear or two when the mobile lounges are retired. They are probably inefficient and obsolete, which is why the $1.4 billion dollar AeroTrain system is under construction. Perhaps, in an effort to pay some bills, Dulles International could turn a few of its mobile lounges into tourist attractions. Then once an hour or so, tourists could take a nostalgic mobile lounge tour of our remarkable and growing international airport.