Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 3, 2010

Dulles to Sleekest

A few months ago I wrote about a trip to Washington, D.C., and speculated that after nearly fifteen years of flying there on business — perhaps 50 or 60 trips — I may have ridden for the final time on the distinctive “mobile lounges” that have been one of the distinctive features of Dulles Airport since its inception.
HERE is a link to that post.
Last week I returned to Washington for the first time since I wrote that item. I anticipated correctly: the Mobile Lounges are out of service (for most of the terminals — a few are still operating). It’s the end of that era. Now one travels from the remote terminals to Eero Saarinen’s iconic main terminal via the Aerotrain.
IMG_2464 Brad Nixon (640x480)
The train is sleek, clean, and it’s a darned short ride, at least from Terminal B. According to the Dulles Web site, you reach a top speed of 42 m.p.h.

According to local legend, the Aerotrain is the second attempt to find a more direct route to the terminal than Mr. Saarinen’s original plan. The first, less expensive approach than excavating the enormous Aerotrain project was to build bridges from the gates to the terminal, but the planes kept knocking them down.

IMG_2468 Brad Nixon (640x480)

Aerotrain station, Terminal B

Ah, that’s an old joke, but I’m an old jokester.
 IMG_2472 Brad Nixon (640x480)
The Dulles terminal is one of those iconic buildings that, as a kid, I always hoped to see. It may not be the most memorable architecture in Washington, but it’s up there. I’d give first place to the Lincoln Memorial. I’m not certain I’ll ever experience something like the impact of that simple rectangle of Lincoln’s as I did when I was 5 and saw it for the first time, or on any of the subsequent visits I’ve made. But Saarinen’s terminal was greatly heralded in the day, and it remains a notable structure. You do still get the experience when you are on a departing flight from Dulles.
The re-engineering of the airport over the past decades has preserved the original pattern of traffic flow: first you approach along the long axis of the terminal at some distance, seeing it over on your left, then, you curve in toward it, and drive along it to your drop off point. It makes no difference if it’s day or night. In the light, you see the sun on that sweeping, raking line of columns and, at night, you see the glow of the interior through the tall glass.
Inside, the terminal is a wonderful open and well-lighted space that LIFTS you up, unlike the cramped and nasty spaces of LAX, JFK, Atlanta, Miami and a hundred other vicious little plane-stops. THIS is the grandiose realization of Travel Adventure.
Dulles terminal, passage to gates

Dulles terminal, passage to gates

The introduction of the Aerotrain has enhanced the space at Dulles in a way that I had not foreseen: it has removed the tedious, snaking security line from the main terminal to the lower level and restored the open sweep of space in the rear portion of the Main Terminal. Previously, the entire space you see in the photo above was filled with unhappy, harried people shuffling along in lines toward Judgement. Is this the line for the Haunted Mansion, the Matterhorn, or the TSA Wonderful World of Insults? Keep walking, brother.

So, Mr. Saarinen, your terminal remains an icon, and is larger than ever, but still just as good. Your whackadoodle idea about the mobile lounges has run its course, and we really, truly are in that land of the future. We’re glad to be here.

© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017



  1. I remember distinctly shuffling on to a mobile lounge after arriving late at Dulles one evening, and in walked one of my favorite Congressmen, Jack Kemp and an aide. He commented loudly on the ride that “only the federal government could screw up airport terminals the way they had done this one”. I bet they found other union jobs for those mobile lounge drivers on the new train, what do you think?


    • Roger, that’s a subject I actually have thought about every time I rode the Lounge – those drivers: surely one of the cushiest – if most boring – gigs in all the world. Yes, one assumes that there was provision for those unioneers in the new scheme. I’m going to look into it and report back! Thanks.


    • Incidentally, my best Dulles sighting was John McCain a few years ago. But he was talking to a group of high schoolers on tour, so didn’t have a chance to say hello to him.


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