Washington Dulles Airport Will Spend $8 Million Each To Refurbish 60 Year Old People Movers

One of the unique features of Washington Dulles airport is that, despite building an expensive train system, they still use “mobile lounges” to ferry passengers across the airport from their D concourse and to bring passengers from some international flights directly to customs and immigration. These people movers were built in the 1960s.

Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority will spend $16 million to refurbish two of these vehciles, described as a “complete ground up re-engineer and design” that will take three years. Then, if that project goes well, they’ll consider doing the same with the remaining 47 (18 mobile lounges and 29 “plane mate” vehicles) over the following six years.

These are no longer being built, since virtually no one else uses them any longer, and the manufacturer no longer supports them. The project is expected to provide 20 years of additional life to the vehicles, and help kick the can down the road on a replacement or extension of the AeroTrain to terminal D.

I lived in the DC area for 18 years. I love close-in National airport and abhor Dulles. 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 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. They’re finally talking about replacing the 1980s temporary concourse used by United.

Washington Dulles airport is 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.

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. By 1966 Dulles International Airport was already regarded as a white elephant.

This animated film by Ray Eames and Charles Eames explains the idea for how the airport was designed – 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.

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. 49 mobile lounges and planemates @ $8 million a pop = $390 million over ten years to upgrade ancient tedious tech everybody hates. Brand new purpose-built airside buses from Cobus, Proterra, etc. cost $200-$500k. This is an extremely stupid expenditure. Dulles should be investing in replacing these dumb things, not prolonging their lives which ought to be over already.

  2. While Dulles has its shortfalls, the mobile lounges being at the top of the list, there are also many good features that make it far less “abhorrent” than you like to publish here.

    1. The Dulles access road is one of the few dedicated highways to an airport in the world. It makes the trip far more reasonable and once you are on it its smooth sailing to the airport.

    2. The idea that it is far away from The District is really no longer relevant. Sure, DCA is close and wonderful, but limited in its destinations. While IAD used to be in the farm lands of NoVa it is now pretty much in the heart of the DMV as the metro area expands out further.

    3. The main Terminal is an architectural wonder. There is nothing more beautiful and satisfying than turning the corner on the access road and seeing the building come to life as the sun sets over Virginia.

    4. Long walk to security? It’s all of about two minutes from the counters. Not sure what you are talking about, Gary. The only “long walk” is when taking the train to the C/D gates and that final stretch. A slight compensation being the rather quick walk inside C/D to get to most any gate (and why people love connecting at IAD)

    5. A/B Terminals are beautiful, airy, sun filled and fantastic for lounges and offerings. No, it’s not Singapore or Doha, but it’s still a functional and lovely uncrowded place to linger before a flight.

    6. The ability to park right next to the terminal without being in a garage to give you a short three minute walk to the terminal and no elevators, dark tunnels, or trying to recall which floor of a garage you parked on.

    7. Three levels of pick up and drop off that allows for better traffic movement.

    No, it is not world class…but Dulles certainly does not fit the bill of abhorrent. It has fantastic charms and benefits that make it certainly one of the best in the U.S. and I quite like it.

  3. Last Thursday our United flight from LHR to IAD left over an hour late. On arrival the flight attendant made an announcement to please stay seated so people with connections could get off first. Had to laugh because everyone got stuffed into the mobile lounge which took over 10 minutes.

  4. @Peter. A lot of crews are actually not understanding of the Dulles system, lol. With passengers it can really be funny, as the doors open and they run to get to immigration first…only to discover it’s a bus. In fact, it’s often better to be last on.

    Hot tip: On the mobile lounge, always go right behind the driver and stand in the small connecting “hallway” to assure you are one of the first off. Avoid the handicap areas to the right and left as you will inevitably be moved as they bring on wheelchairs and thus pushed back. That “hallway” is the secret to getting off before others.

  5. To echo what Tom says….why? This is a HUGE waste of money for something that is so outdated and can be replaced for a much cheaper cost. It seems someone is probably getting a kickback on this contract? It certainly isn’t the cheapest or best option to kick the can down the road. And I always hated flying Dulles too.

    Add to that that there is now a coalition to add to the burden of DCA because, well no one wants to actually fly into Dulles. DCA has a 1250 mile limit for flights and the number of slots approved to fly beyond (DFW, AUS, DEN, LAX, SEA, ect) that is 40 a day. They want to increase that to 96 flights a day. The opposition has no real legitimate rationale to oppose this legislation except to keep prices high. Which all leads me to wonder if there is a intention here to keep Dulles as undesirable as possible to keep DCA preferred and higher priced? It reminds me of the Wright Amendment for Love field in combination with the LGA v JFK issue.

  6. Gary lived here long ago and the situation at Dulles is much different now. Metro’s new silver line now runs straight to Dulles. I live in DC and used to avoid Dulles bc it was too hard to get to, but now it’s almost as easy as going to DCA, only a little longer on the train but that’s not bad. Taking the train there is just as easy as DCA and I just budget 30 minutes extra for the trip. Also, as others have said, if you fly United domestic Dulles is terrible because of terminal C/D, but if you fly out of terminals A and B it’s very nice and convenient. I avoid United flights out of IAD but otherwise I enjoy that airport.

  7. I like Dulles because of its absurdity and anachronisms. A true avgeek’s airport.

    But that dollar figure is absurd…didn’t realize they have several dozen of these lounges, figured it was like 15 tops. Are most of them for the bank of UA international arrivals? or do terminal A/B international arrivals have to use them?

  8. @UnionThat. The reality is that both are very sustainable and the increase at DCA is both welcome and I am sure will be approved eventually. Both airports offer their own benefits to the DMV (BWI as well). IAD has the benefit of being an international hub airport for UA as well as very nicely placed for current and future expansion of the metro region (not to mention its ability to handle large aircraft) , DCA will always be the first choice for domestic flights if living in the district or Alexandria and Arlington etc, and BWI has its place for many areas of Maryland as well as being a significant hub for WN and serving as a spillover option for handling wide body aircraft from overseas.

    All can easily live quite well together, even with allowing the increases to take hold at DCA. We are now the 6th largest metro area in the country with a diverse and powerful workforce…making this all very reasonable. So, yes, I agree with you.

  9. @Peter. With the exception of U.S, Pre Clearance flights…why I love arriving on Etihad or Aer Lingus. It’s a much better experience in avoiding the mobile lounges.

  10. This story is very biased. I agree with Stuart – and the construction of the new midfield terminal is starting in a few months. Dulles is near to me (and many others) and offers a large number of non-stop flights, and for many it takes longer to get to Reagan than Dulles. I’ll stick with IAD when I can.

  11. Gary has a very elitist, DC-centric point of view. Must have been nice being there in Georgetown living by politicians. However, the majority of the metro population (and wealth) does NOT live in the District. It lives in the suburbs – especially in Fairfax, Loudoun and Montgomery (MD) counties. For these people, IAD is perfectly fine if not preferable.

    I grew up near there and remember what IAD was like before security checkpoints were established. It was NOT a white elephant, it was a state of the art facility. The mobile lounges took you directly from the gate to the aircraft back then. It was quick, and it was easy. IAD was a showplace – at a time when DCA was a dump. The years haven’t been kind to the place; some of this has to do with unforeseen changes to the industry, some of it due to being run by an inefficient and bloated agency.

  12. I’m struggling to understand why anyone really thought those mobile lounges would be a welcomed changed. To be a truly pleasant experience, they would have to be so empty that the flights would never have made money. These things are basically old, expensive buses, and much like buses from 50 years ago, they cause horrific motion sickness and constantly smell of diesel exhaust. Nothing says “welcome to the capital of the free world” like those sh~tty ancient “mobile lounge” buses.

  13. I know for some IAD is so hated, but Stuart hits on many of the right points, including the expansion of the city especially out towards IAD. Three additional points I would make:

    1) Surprised Gary didn’t make an exception for this – the mobile lounges are the absolute best for plane spotting at IAD. You drive right past all the jumbos and little ones. It’s way better than the dark, below ground trains.

    2) I have only flown out of Terminal 1 at DCA lately, but have heard absolute horror stories about the pickup lanes for Terminal 2 at DCA after the reconfiguration.

    3) I also think, as a new parent, the mobile lounges are a bit better for strollers than searching for the elevators etc around the trains.

  14. @Andy: Back in say 1970, your flight would board at Gate 5. The airport wide PA made the announcement and people lined up. Depending on the load, there were usually 2 trips but people were orderly and there was no hassle. They never let them get crowded beyond capacity back then.

    And the concept was great, you’d go through that door, sit in what seemed like huge room, and that same room would drive out to the 707 (or whatever), adjust to the height of the aircraft door and in you went. In an era where most airports featured air stairs outside in the elements, this was very cool. Perhaps it seems less so in 2023 but back then it was unique and marveled at.

  15. IAD (like DCA) is a full employment scheme. Oh! Did you think that IAD exists to benefit the flying passenger?

    Like old-timey Colonial Williamsburg, IAD showcases the historical architecture of Mr. Saarinen and the historical technology of the planemates/mobile-lounges.

    IAD’S Golden Age of Travel with its soaring architecture and over-engineered planemates/mobile-lounges lives on and on and on. Meanwhile, DOH, CDG, ZRH, DXB, NRT, and other top airports have nothing to fear from IAD.

    And yes, I’ve taken the ninety-minute Silver Line Metro ride to access IAD from inside the beltway. Hint: it’s not an express train. If time is of the essence, then book your preferred car service

  16. I loathe those vehicles with all my soul. Having to wait while they fill up, the slow speed at which they move, and if you miss one it can be 15 or 20 minutes before the next one leaves. Not the best when you’re in a hurry.

  17. DCA access roads are a huge mess on busy travel dates primarily cos there is no place to expand or modify. IAD can be accessed via metro IF there are no service disruptions. IAD needs a mobile lounge to bus International arriving passengers to immigration. US citizens can breeze thro TSA using global entry and scanable passports. DCA has no place left to expand runway capacity plus all the sensitive area overflight bans and noise issues will continue to stymie growth at DCA.

  18. This is what happens when you give an unelected, unaccountable “authority” (MWAA) the ability to spend as much as they want without scrutiny or repercussions. This is how you end up with a plan to send $400 mm rehanning 60 year moon buggies, the most expensive airport train (by distance) in history that only goes to three of the four terminals.

    An international airport without customs and immigration in the terminal? Could have solved that problem in the A/B terminal but no.

    Dulles could be a crown jewel for international travel . 4 long runways, room for more. Dedicated transportation links. Plenty of room for terminals. But not with the MWAA in charge.

    Instead, it going to be a solar farm.

  19. The one thing IAD really has going for it that sets it apart from any other major northeast airport is its room to grow. It has ample room for another couple concourses and more importantly, a fifth runway if needed. It really has the potential to be a premier east coast gateway for United if they and MWAA would invest more in it. They just really need to get rid of terminal C,D YESTERDAY and those mobile lounges.

    On the upside though, TSA is pretty fast and easy, customs is easy (with Global Entry) and I actually think the Polaris Lounge is great (for a US airline), not to mention the selection of foreign airline lounges under PP.

  20. I have been using IAD for more than 40 years, mainly for international flights. I like it and I love the international carriers terminal. However, I hate so called mobile lounges so bad. Frequently, I had observed some foreign visitors couldn’t hide their dismay and astonishment with these ancient monsters. I have been dreaming for a long time that they someday, they will disappear. However, the opposite is happening. Somebody decided to spend millions of dollars to bring them back from death. This money could go a long way for a better solution without them. I feel that keeping them will be shameful because they are an embarrassment to our national capital and to our country.

  21. Makes sense why Gary doesn’t like it as he can’t walk too far.

    Dulles still has a long way to go but it’s not as bad as portrayed here. Heck, Even if IAD had pristine terminals rivaling Dubai Gary would still be complaining.

    Also while the origins of IAD is not great there were other lands that were taken over to build projects.

  22. Did any of you actually watch the video?

    The fellow reading Playboy at the kiosk 1 minute before the lounge doors close who then runs in just as the doors close is vintage Americana.

  23. Come on Gary, don’t be like Yogi Berra about nostalgia. These are functioning artifacts; revel in riding them.

  24. AngryFlier,

    I didn’t know Señor Leff from the Right Wing to ever be a neighbor of mine in DC.

    I would have thought him more interested in being registered to vote in Virginia and to have a car with lower insurance costs than to be one with the powerless DC voters.

  25. IAD is the Tokyo Narita of the US.

    Lift the perimeter rule and let’s see what happens. All that confidence will rapidly evaporate.

  26. @BigTree

    “And yes, I’ve taken the ninety-minute Silver Line Metro ride to access IAD from inside the beltway”

    Nice try with the hyperbole. Metro Center => Dulles is about 50 minutes on the train. “Inside the beltway” can be Tysons corner, which is *much* closer. 90 minutes on the silver line is more like FedEx field on the far east side of town (well, Largo Town Center) to the airport.

    Ballston-ish to the airport is probably a little faster by car than the train, but if you’re coming from down town, a car isn’t much faster, especially during rush hour.

  27. @Gary

    DCA has its warts too. I ain’t gonna argue that $8 mill/moon buggie is insane, but the full on detest for the airport overall is a bit misplaced. Terminal B is gorgeous… and the airport mostly runs on time, save for the high wind days that close the three main N/S runways.

    But wonderful DCA? Try flying out of Terminal 1 (old Terminal A) and tell me it’s your preferred choice. In fact, I can’t stand it. It’s a haul from the metro and *crowded*. Few amenities, no place to sit, and super awkward with WN’s boarding process.

    Also annoying: In the old days, Terminals B/C had enough stuff outside security so that if one didn’t want to hang out at cramped Terminal A, one could do so without having to clear security. Yes, one can still get in there if flying WN and wants to kill time, but they have to clear security to do it. IAD? Once you’ve cleared, you’ve cleared.

  28. Having lived in the Washington DC Baltimore metro area for almost 15 years and traveling internationally. I remember fondly the mobile lounge shuttles, traveling to and from the terminals airplanes and main terminal. Since I always fly United, I make it a point to take the moving lounge mobile shuttles, every time I go to the united C/D terminal… I don’t even think about taking the train because of the distance one has to walk to get it from the main terminal as wells walking back to C pier. There is something very special, unique and nostalgic about getting onto one of the mobile lounges… Also when it rises to meet the gate area. For every negative comment on here about the design of the airport. It is a very unique place and to think that they were able to replicate the original design and duplicate it twice is an engineering marvel. I like the fact that the metro now goes to the airport, which makes the travel by bus to the nearest metro station a thing of the past.

  29. I would like to know who exactly made this beauocratic decision and how much they have possibly invested in the manufacturer responsible for the upgrade. Hmm, I smell the fragrance of Nancy Pelosi in the room.

  30. Boo hoo! The mobile lounges need refurbishment and everyone has an opinion. I’m waiting for the person to write up something about blaming the president for this. That’s what they do. Complain about everything.

  31. The cartoon sells it well. Why didn’t the idea of mobile lounges catch on?

  32. Unlike the old crowded DFW air train, these are still efficient in connecting the terminals. As LAX, LA Guardia, and other airports replace their old designa out of necessity, I have to admire at how well these 50 year old machines have lasted.

    Any AirTrain will require significantly more walking, so there’s so legitimate reason to keep these.

    BTW. I’ve only used them to connect between terminals, so not sure what the “mobile lounge” concept refers to.

  33. I ran a similar program for DELTA at JFK units were overhauled completely by a company called Teck sol in Hagerstown MD. 7 Units were completely refurbished inside and out ground upo completely new running gear computer operated, and engine driven units required 3 major items 1 proper operators 2 regular MTC 3. MTC Friendly and easily serviceable. All units need to be completely electric Driven, and systems operated and must be computer managed with simplicity of operation for operators with specific safety measures to meet all emergency needs such as stuck up in full extension also complete fire suppression system and most important is passenger emergency evacuation. just a few requirements along with many bells and whistles but these to need to be kept to a minimum so not to complicate operation for operators. Just opinion Dennis

  34. “All international arrivals use them” — not true, at least not for United connecting flights.

    I have been flying regularly through IAD on United int’l flights for 25+ years, and I don’t recall ever arriving at other than a C gate. Connecting United pax pass through immigration and security there, coming up into the terminal near the United Club Lounge at C8. That includes just last week, when I arrived from AMS at a C gate (AMS is not a US pre-clearance airport).

    It may be different for pax terminating at Washington (I’ve never done that from an int’l flight).

  35. Yes, it is ninety minutes if you have to board the blue or yellow line in Old Town Alexandria (a popular tourist area inside the Beltway) and then metro past DCA and then some more stations and then transfer to the Silver train and then go however many stations…. Yes, I have done this. Yes, a car service is twice as fast. I know what I am talking about. I used to transfer to the 5A express bus. I have done this. I don’t need some holier-than-thou Hill intern to tell me what’s good for me. Sorry to disappoint you with actual experience. (or let The SV’s google maps arbitrage it.)

  36. Someone mentioned an announcement on a late flight to let connections off first only to wait on the shuttle. Connections don’t take the shuttle. They go down to customs and immigration in the C/D concourse.

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