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Dulles to open new airport subway on Tuesday

Officials at Dulles International Airport are previewing their new, $1.5 billion AeroTrain system that will shuttle travelers from the terminal to the gate and replace the airport's mobile lounges. A media tour is being held Monday, and officials plan to open the service to the traveling public on Tuesday morning. The Post's Lisa Rein will have details from the press preview later today.

The new underground train system will have 29 cars and an average wait time of less than two minutes, officials said.

The train system's debut had been delayed when it failed some initial tests.

-- From the Associated Press and staff reports

By Michael Bolden  |  January 25, 2010; 10:51 AM ET
Categories:  Advisories , Airports  
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What do they plan to do with the mobile lounges? I assume they will keep them handy until they are confident that the new Aero train system is working as planned. Then what?

Posted by: jculfsr | January 25, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

The mobile lounges will be sent to the Udvar-Hazy center and turned into amusement rides.

Posted by: chunche | January 25, 2010 11:57 AM | Report abuse

Some of the mobile lounges will need to be retained for international arrivals, as they are, and presumably will continue to be, used to bus the passengers to the International Arrivals Building to clear customs and immigration.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 25, 2010 12:01 PM | Report abuse

So what are they going to do with the mobile lounges? Sell them on eBay?

Posted by: gilbertbp | January 25, 2010 12:20 PM | Report abuse

And they still need them for Terminal D, which is not yet served by the train.

Posted by: tj722 | January 25, 2010 12:29 PM | Report abuse

"Mobile Lounges" looks like a bus (from another planet), acts like a bus, feels like a bus...why not just call the stupid thing a bus?

Posted by: thetan | January 25, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

If this subway is run the same way everything else has been at that airport... I expect it to cost taxpayers and flyers over 1 trillion dollars in repairs and upgrades over 10 years....

Remember.. a trillion is the old billion... Inflation is a killer isnt it?

Ever ask why they did away with the Big Mac Index?

Posted by: ProveMeWrong | January 25, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

They probably could recover some of their costs by selling the 'mobile lounges' on Ebay. You can buy anything on Ebay.

Posted by: Sitka1 | January 25, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

Technically Dulles has two types of "mobile lounges" (or "people-packers" as my father called them). There are the ones used to ferry passengers to the midfield terminals; those have flat roofs. Then there are the ones called "Plane Mates," easily identified by the two column-like things that stick up from the roof. Those were the original idea. When Dulles was built, the concept was that the planes would almost all use remote stands and that passengers would ride the little buses directly to (and from) the planes, boarding from the buses. That idea obviously flopped when the Jetway was developed and became popular at other airports, although Dulles still uses the "Plane Mates" in situations where a gate isn't available (forcing a plane to a remote stand), or where a plane isn't going to the terminal (Air France's final Concorde flight to Dulles in 2003 is a good example), or where they want to use multiple buses to offload an incoming international flight as quickly as possible. I wouldn't be surprised if they keep some of the "Plane Mates" around for this sort of thing. At other airports (Heathrow is a notable one) boarding stairs are used at remote stands and passengers then take ordinary shuttle buses, but given the choice I'd take the Plane Mate over boarding stairs any day.

You can see a Plane Mate in use here:

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 25, 2010 1:07 PM | Report abuse

+but given the choice I'd take the Plane Mate over boarding stairs any day.+

Me too.

Posted by: chunche | January 25, 2010 1:36 PM | Report abuse

Maybe they'll put the wet bars back into the original mobile lounges. That was the original concept: enjoy an adult beverage while being ferried out to your aircraft, served by an air hostess wearing gloves and pumps.

Posted by: ksu499 | January 25, 2010 1:38 PM | Report abuse

$1.5 billion? You'd thought they were building an entire urban mass transit system.

Posted by: skinky_1999 | January 25, 2010 2:02 PM | Report abuse

Send the mobile lounges to Jeddah - they probably need some more.

Posted by: palmtree2001 | January 25, 2010 2:29 PM | Report abuse

Turn the mobile lounges into homeless shelters.

Posted by: jckdoors | January 25, 2010 3:38 PM | Report abuse

Send the lounges to local schools.

Posted by: jercha | January 25, 2010 3:45 PM | Report abuse

$1.5 billion and it will be of zero use to me as the vast majority of my flights are international. Does anyone know why the international flying public was not factored into this? Why can this type of transportation be done at airports across the world and not here at Dulles?

Posted by: derzhava | January 25, 2010 4:11 PM | Report abuse

"$1.5 billion and it will be of zero use to me as the vast majority of my flights are international. Does anyone know why the international flying public was not factored into this? Why can this type of transportation be done at airports across the world and not here at Dulles?"

One reason is that the United States handles international arrivals differently than many other countries. Take the UK, for example. Suppose you're flying on British Airways from Dulles to Copenhagen with a connection at London Heathrow (LHR). When you arrive at LHR, you'll have to clear security, but you will not go through passport control, and you will not have to claim your checked bags because BA staff at Dulles will have checked them through to CPH. This is all because the United Kingdom recognizes the concept of an airside transit. The passenger following the itinerary I describe is deemed never to have entered the UK under their law.

The United States doesn't allow that. In the USA, all passengers must clear US Customs and Immigration at their FIRST port of entry, regardless of their next destination. That is, suppose back in 1982 you were flying Concorde from Paris to Dulles and on to Mexico City. You still had to clear US Customs and Immigration (and security) at Dulles, even though you weren't actually entering the United States except to connect between two flights. The same rule still applies, and in fact you can find detailed advice on the Internet for non-US citizens about how to avoid a transit of the United States due to the nuisance of passing through Customs and Immigration--and TSA security--simply to connect to another flight. Because of this US law, all passengers arriving on an international flight must be segregated until they pass through Customs and Immigration.

More to come in a follow-up comment. The Post's site limits the length of comments and I had to split up my thoughts.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 25, 2010 4:39 PM | Report abuse


There ARE alternatives to using the little buses for international flights, but they'd require a wholesale redesign of Dulles. At New York's JFK, for example, each terminal has its own Customs and Immigration facilities. You go from the plane into the terminal and directly to passport control. Then you connect on to whichever other terminal you need (MAJOR NUISANCE, BTW). Down in Atlanta, all immigration procedures are handled at one of the midfield concourses. Then you either go to the gate for your next flight or head to the landside terminal. BUT, because once you clear immigration you can go to any gate, they'll force you to re-check your luggage, including any duty-free liquor you bought at the airside duty-free and carried onto the plane, and have your bag transported to the main terminal, where you then retrieve it. Much better system for people who are connecting, but a big pain in the rear for people who aren't.

Dulles has a different design due to the International Arrivals Building. It's a holdover from the airport's original design when all aircraft were to use remote stands and all passengers were to be transported in the mobile lounges--the bus would simply take you to the terminal if you were on a domestic flight or to the International Arrivals Building if you weren't. That procedure has been retained even with the arrival of the midfield terminals, and it would be very expensive to change it. Note that if you're connecting to another flight, you have to re-clear TSA security after you've cleared Customs and Immigration, and you have to claim and re-check your hold baggage, so you'd be introducing some MAJOR changes to Dulles's operations by adding Customs facilities, passport control facilities, additional baggage carousels, further security checkpoints, and baggage re-check facilities. The cost of doing all this just to allow international arrivals to avoid the buses makes no sense. It's more cost-effective to maintain the current system where they clear passport control, retrieve checked bags, clear Customs, go upstairs, go through the main security checkpoint, and then take the new AeroTrain or a mobile lounge on to the next flight.

The better solution would be to amend US law to allow people to transit the United States without having to go through immigration formalities, but that will never happen.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 25, 2010 4:42 PM | Report abuse

I want to buy one of those mobile lounges...I'd convert that thing into one mean driving machine.

395/495 will have NOTHING on my road rage during rush hour! heh heh....

Posted by: cbmuzik | January 25, 2010 4:51 PM | Report abuse

"cbmuzik," sounds great until you realize that the mobile lounges don't go above 25 mph. Sounds like you'd be the TARGET of road rage! :-)

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 25, 2010 4:59 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, 1995hoo, for the history lesson. Problem is, in the USA, the government wants to know who is here, meaning no stepping onto US soil to change planes without declaring yourself to customs, and more importantly, being vetted by the visa or visa waiver process (the latter is now an electronic check before you board). I think most American people want this to occur as well, as someone does not need to be legally admitted to the USA to cause some big problems here.

Another problem is that international departures and domestic arrivals are in the same terminal. In Europe, that typically does not occur. So once in the departure area for international flights, you cannot leave except to board the plane or through customes. Here, you can just walk out into the USA, so they can't have people in the terminal who haven't been through customs. Then again, the vast majority of air travel in America is domestic, and the vast majority of international travel in America is to or from an American city. This is not the case in Europe. So their airports are designed for more international travel, whereas ours are designed for domestic travelers. What little international to international traffic does occur in this country is likely mostly people from visa waiver countries. So if you show up at US immigration with your onward boarding pass, there is minimal questioning and you are through pretty quickly.

Thus, the mobile lounges will remain for arriving international people (but those people can use the train when they leave the USA). I think so long as the mobile lounges are timed to meet arriving international flights, this won't be a problem, and with the train, there will be more free mobile lounges to shuttle those international arrivals.

Posted by: thetan | January 25, 2010 5:43 PM | Report abuse

Upon re-reading my comment, I note that the 1982 hypothetical I raised was a little unclear. In the hypothetical you were flying Concorde, operated by Air France, from Paris to Dulles, where the aircraft would refuel, then on to Mexico City. You would deplane, clear US passport control, collect any checked bags, clear US Customs, go upstairs, recheck any checked bags, clear security, and go back out to re-board the very same aircraft you'd just flown from Paris.

"thetan" raises some good points about the airport logistics, and of course in the current political situation we will never see immigration controls loosened, but it still seems peculiar to prohibit passengers from remaining on the aircraft during the tech stop in this sort of scenario. Apparently on some trans-Pacific flights originating in Canada and flying to Asia it is necessary for the aircraft to make a fuel stop at Honolulu, and US law requires all those passengers to go through immigration because of that one stop. I can't say I see the logic in that.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 25, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

BTW, tj722 notes that the train won't run to the D-gates. But you can still ride the train to the C-gates and just walk down to the other end, as C and D share the same concourse.

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 25, 2010 6:49 PM | Report abuse

Heh, I had no idea the Concorde served Mexico City.

As far as the Honolulu stop, that was for either Air Canada or Qantas service between Vancouver and Sydney, which at the time, could not make the trip without a stop and Honolulu. A special exception to the rules was made for those flights, actually. Everyone had to get off the plane. Those bound for the US went to US Customs. Those just transiting went straight to the departures area, which was in a "dead end" portion of the terminal and had some restrooms. That sectioned off area of the departture lounge was guarded by armed US Customs agents to ensure that no one left (but people getting on the plane in Hawaii could enter). The plane than re-boarded and continued.

Now I believe Air Canada operates that route non-stop, while Qantas requires a connection at LAX, with the Vancouver to LAX presumably being on American Airlines (both being OneWorld alliance members). At least the Australia-bound trip, you would clear US Customs in Vancouver before boarding a flight to the USA (and there is no way around that), but returning you would have to clear in LAX only to walk over to the American Airlines terminal and leave.

Now if you really want to see some strange can fly domestic on some Qantas international flights within Australia. You have to "Exit" and "re-enter" Australia at either end (but they stamp your boarding pass and not your passport), your luggage is tagged with special "Domestic" tags so you wouldn't have to pay duty on your luggage again, and your boarding pass is flagged with a big "D" sticker so the duty-free shops know to charge you sales and VAT on your purchases.

Posted by: thetan | January 25, 2010 7:47 PM | Report abuse

1995hoo, thank you very much for that fascinating history lesson - and thanks to thetan for adding further informative comments. I've been involved in some aspect of the aviation industry for 10 years now, and spent some time working at Dulles, but not long enough to get this history, though I always wondered how and why the airport's design came about. I know a bit more about DCA, but not as much as I'd like. I wonder if there's a good book anyone could recommend on our area's aviation and airport history?

Posted by: --sg | January 25, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

"Heh, I had no idea the Concorde served Mexico City."

Air France briefly flew Concorde to Mexico City twice a week, via Dulles or JFK as loads required, during the early 1980s-era Mexican oil boom. After the boom ended, the route became non-viable due to low passenger loads and they cancelled it. Interesting aspect of that routing was that they flew at Mach 2 down the East Coast after leaving Dulles/JFK (similar to BA's route from Dulles to Miami) but then slowed to Mach 0.95 to cross Florida near Jacksonville (so as to avoid unlawfully sonic-booming the state) and then re-accelerated to Mach 2 over the Gulf of Mexico. One wonders if it would have made more sense just to fly around Florida to the south, given that Concorde's engines were at their most efficient when supercruising at Mach 2 with reheats off.

I've precleared Customs in Vancouver flying back to the States and I was thankful for it when I had 15 minutes to connect in Salt Lake City to the flight on to Reagan. That's a bit of a different animal from some of the other things they do in terms of the hoops people have to jump through. The scenario thetan raises of segregating the international passengers makes sense. I know the Canadians have done that at Gander when Concorde required a tech stop on occasion--they allowed the passengers to deplane, take photos of the aircraft, then go into a secured area of the terminal. Makes a lot of sense to handle it that way. (Lucky sods, too; there are no noise restrictions at Gander, meaning a straight-off reheat climb directly to Mach 2 upon takeoff. At LHR and Dulles they disengaged reheat after taking off and then turned it back on to break the sound barrier once over the water.)

To answer --sg, I have no idea about an answer to your query about a book. The Washington Post's John Kelly (The Answer Man) might be able to comment on that if you e-mail him. As far as the design of Dulles goes, the idea of using the "Mobile Lounges" and "Plane Mates" was integral from the beginning, and of course Eero Saarinen designed the main terminal as a very distinctive building. Times were different--back then, security was minimal (if it existed at all) and it was unfathomable that people would want all these shopping and dining options at the airport because the idea was that you'd show up, board the plane, and be on your way. The idea of loitering or spending several hours at the airport was never considered because the world was such a different place.

(One wonders to what degree loitering in the airport is a positive development. Dulles has a Gordon Biersch in one of the midfield concourses. While the food can be tasty, one wonders to what degree the other folks on the plane will appreciate the inevitable farting caused by the garlic fries.)

Posted by: 1995hoo | January 25, 2010 11:39 PM | Report abuse

Some more research I've done indicates that there actually were ways to transit the USA without a visa (you still had to at least report to immigration) up until 9/11. In one program, you were taken from the immigration checkpoint to a secure room (I imagine this was probably a holding cell at some less popular airports, though big airports like LAX actually had a real lounge). When your international flight was boarding, they would call your name and escort you to the plane (if it was any silver lining to having to wait in a holding cell, it was being allowed to board first). The other program was for people who had to use a US domestic flight while transiting. These people had their documents taken from them when they boarded the domestic flight using procedures similar to the one described above. When the plane landed, they were met by officials and escorted off the plane to the waiting location, and given their documents back when boarding their final international flight.

Sounds like a pain, but given the hassle of getting a visa, it might have been worth it for last minute or one-time travel. Nowadays, I guess the idea is that if you are a national of a country which requires a visa for the USA, and you can afford to be traveling internationally to far away places like Europe, you'll likely qualify for a multiple entry US visa (Mexicans can get 10 year visas). Otherwise...take your pick of other countries to transit en route to a third country. Mexico City, Cancun, Brazilian cities, and Buenos Aires all have very good flight service.

While a transportation engineering student at UVA, we often studied Dulles Airport, as it was a place most of us were familiar with (all of the international students come in that way pretty much). It has a lot of interesting history behind it. Might have been a "white elephant" at first, but thank goodness the foresight was there to build it in a location that could easily be expanded. The New York City area would kill to have that luxury. Dulles has done a relatively good job evolving with time, and the recent investments have made a huge difference. The "Independence Air" days were a high point for Dulles in terms of low fares and flight options, but the overcrowding made the airport miserable. We've come a long way since then.

But I will say, I think Dulles's greatest asset is the access road. Given the horrible congestion in the area, at least the airport has a good, dedicated route that is uncongested, connecting the airport to the edge of the region's core. If you had to actually sit in traffic to get there, it would be a total disaster.

Posted by: thetan | January 26, 2010 1:02 AM | Report abuse

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