This Ultimate #AvGeek Video Explains How Airports Were Planned 60 Years Ago

There are so many reasons I dislike Washington Dulles airport. It’s so bad I almost don’t even blame the airport’s former TSA head for getting drunk on duty, abandoning his post, and driving away erratically.

As with many airports, its far from city center. After a 45 minute drive from downtown without traffic, you reach the airport. And the way it’s laid out you’re still nowhere near most gates. In fact you have a walk to even reach security.

There’s a an airport train system, but United passengers (the airline operates a hub at Dulles, and one of its clubs used to be known for rodents) quickly realize that the train was built to drop people off where they intend to build a new terminal at some indeterminate point in the future.. rather than where passengers actually need to go today.

The original access road leading to Washington Dulles was built with a wide median to accommodate a rail line — something that’s expected to be completed nearly 60 years after the airport opened.

Uber and Lyft are finally solving a problem of regulation run amok, where a taxi monopoly was granted at the airport so Washington Flyer cabs are dispatched from the airport to the city, almost always returning empty, while cabs from DC head out to the airport to drop off passengers and return to the city empty because they aren’t permited to drop off passengers. Twice the cars making twice the trips necessary, without regard for the environment.

The original site for the airport was supposed to be closer to DC, in Fairfax County, but residents objected. So the government condemned houses in the predominantly African American neighborhood of Willard to build it instead.

Without public hearings, the federal government sent condemnation letters to all 87 Willard area landowners early in September 1958, and the letters came like a bolt. Many landowners formed a citizens association, but it disbanded, and everyone followed separate courses. Several hired lawyers, who took one-third of anything over the condemnation price.

The airports authority is one of the most corrupt in the country.

In 1966 Dulles International Airport was already regarded as a white elephant. It’s still problematic despite billions in ‘improvements’ spent over the last 15 years, excluding the cost to bring rail to the airport. And the airport had fewer passengers in 2015 than it did in 2004, even.

But how did we get the airport we have? The best way to understand Washington Dulles is to go back to how the concept was being explained before it was even built.

This animated film by Ray Eames and Charles Eames explains the idea — how tragic they believed it was to walk long distances to gates, how revolutionary it would be to have “mobile lounges” that became the Dulles People Movers.

And it offers a fascinating window into how the future of aviation was seen through the eyes of the 1950. With apologies I cannot seem to find whomever flagged this video for me.

Incidentally it’s amusing what passengers of the 1950s did prior to boarding:

Here’s the video, worth a watch:

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. In 1961 those “mobile lounges” cost $232,000 each — or around $1.85 million in today’s dollars! You could Uber people back and forth for less. I can’t stand Dulles and am only glad that it exists to ferret unknowing passengers away from an already over-scheduled DCA.

  2. ah, travel in luxury! I wish my local airport had been so forward thinking!

    All joking aside, being first to be built from scratch in the jet age hasn’t served Dulles well…

  3. There was a story on the local news here in DC this weekend about how bad the traffic has gotten on the roads to/from DCA due to the growth in flights at that airport. The reporter states that the airport’s spokesperson (pretty sure he meant airport authority) says they’re aware of the road traffic problems, and that they would like to see some of those flights moved to Dulles.
    Um, no!!! Nobody except WMAA wants flights moved from DCA to Dulles. *sigh*

  4. It should say multitudes that even as a United flyer, I’lol sooner fly out of DCA and take a connection rather than schlep out to Dulles.

    That being said, it’s not even the distance that really bothers me so much as the C and D terminals being dreadful. Even something simple like replacing the carpet with tile, removing the ceiling tiles, better lighting, and a few moving walkways in the terminal would improve the experience by light years.

  5. I remember going into a mobile lounge as a kid (at JFK), falling asleep, then waking up and being surprised that we had to transfer to a plane — I thought the lounge was the plane!

  6. While I do agree IAD is among the worst airports in the US, and a disgrace for a gateway to the capital of the “greatest country in the world”, one must put the blame in perspective: Congress has refused to provide the funds to build a real terminal for the past 30-years. And when IAD was planned, it was done so in a completely different airline world, pre Deregulation, and pre Jumbo Jet. (Yes, the 747 and DC10/L1011 were on the drawing board in the late 1950s, but back then airline travel was not the mover of the masses that the industry is today. People still had intercity trains and buses, in addition to their cars, and for most Americans the very idea of flying off to Europe let alone Asia, South America or Africa, was a pipe dream…remember the term “Jet Setter”?) The planners — who started their work in the late 1950s and built Dulles during the early 1960s — were looking at Concorde (and Boeing’s SST) as being the next new thing in air travel, along with 707/DC8 sized aircraft. IAD would service the transcon and overseas markets and its moving lounges were a touchy of a luxury way of getting from the gate to the planes. It was only when the airport was actually opened (yes, lacking proper public transit access but that was pretty common for US airports) that Carter deregulated the airline industry and the entire business model changed to one of moving the masses.

    (As a Canadian observer, I must admit our planners were similarly sideswiped by these changes, as Mirabel was built in the stix north of Montreal to be Canada’s official gateway to the world. Like IAD, it’s terminal was designed to use the same people movers to get passengers between the gate and the plane. Other factors playing into the white elephant status of that airport (though it’s where Bombardier builds its passenger jets today), but similar plans were in the works for a similar new airport east of Toronto but fortunately only the land was assembled and no construction or other design work done.

    Yes, I hate connecting at IAD, let alone originating there. The walk from the Airtrain to C/D gates is absurd, as is walking the long stretches in that “temporary” facility. (One evening I was bemused to watch hordes of passengers marching from one end to the other as UA changed the gate for its KWI/BAH flight three times, going from one end of C to the other end of D, then back to C!) And with so many South American and Asian flights arriving in the early morning, UA still has not provided an Arrivals facility or even showers in its totally inadequate UCs. (We won’t bother talking about the transit TSA security screening ordeal with no PreCheck, either full or modified.)

    But your Charles Eames cartoon animation shows how airline travel was perceived back when airports like IAD (and even JFK and LAX) were designed…or mis-designed. The problem at IAD is that the authority, corrupt or whatever, has mismanaged expansion and Congress has refused to act as befits the gateway to the national capital for overseas visitors.

  7. I can forgive DCA practically anything because I can remember back in the 1980s, in the days of People Express, when you had to navigate wooden boards there, dripping ceilings and just about every other inconvenience. It was terrible (but suitably twinned at that time with Union Station which was literally falling to bits so badly that you had to walk around the outside to avoid being killed by collapsing masonary). Today both of them look wonderful, light years from the misery of 30 years ago. I remember all that when upset by anyhing in either of them. Dulles? Well, it’s already been said.

  8. I do love that they have the guy reading a Playboy in the video. Just perfect. I’ve never flown to or through Dulles, so I never had the pleasure of the mobile lounges. I think, in theory, the video made some strong points about the space requirements of all of the gates at modern airports. Seems to work well in theory. But, then again, so does communism.

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