Truck Trend Legends: The Mobile Lounge
Although this month’s subject is not exactly legendary, it has been touched by greatness. The mobile lounge sounds like it ought to be some ornate trailer with lava lamps, plush cushions, and a well-stocked bar. Actually, it’s a glorified bus on stilts. It takes airline passengers from the terminal to their plane and vice versa. It might have become an integral part of modern-day travel if someone called Frank Der Yuen hadn’t come up with the extendable jet bridge.
Both have the same intent, which is to protect air travelers from the weather and provide easier boarding/disembarkation. Before the lounge and jet bridge came along, it was the mobile staircase emptying out onto the tarmac. That was romantic and all, watching celebrities wave from the plane’s doorway before descending to earth. Or walking up to this gigantic aluminum contraption that was going to send you 35,000 feet into the air and deposit you in another part of the world. But romance does tend to evaporate with rain, wind, noise, and the smell of aviation fuel.
The mobile lounge was part of Eero Saarinen’s vision for Washington Dulles International Airport, whose main terminal he designed in 1958. This was the first-ever airport intended to handle jets, so Saarinen had no template, no frame of reference. He was creating one.
Saarinen was born in Finland in 1910. The family subsequently moved to the United States when he was 13. His father was an architect and this became a family concern, with Saarinen’s sister and both parents contributing parts of the campus at Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Arts. Saarinen also became an industrial designer, creating chairs for Knoll (he was a contemporary of Florence Knoll) and collaborating with those giants of 20th-century American design, Charles and Ray Eames. Perhaps his most famous piece is the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, but he was also responsible for other airport terminals and many major buildings.
They were brought into service not just at Dulles, but also New York’s JFK airport, the Charles de Gaulle airport near Paris, plus airports serving Mexico City, Montreal, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. And there are a couple of variations on the mobile lounge concept: the Passenger Transfer Vehicle (PTV) and the Plane Mate.
The mobile lounge was built by Chrysler, which supplied engines (two per vehicle) and other moving parts, with bodywork by the now-defunct Budd company of Philadelphia that also manufactured rail cars. They were (are) 54 feet long, 16 feet wide, 17.5 feet high and could seat 71 people, with a seated and standing capacity of 102 passengers. Top speed is 26 mph (although the current limit at Dulles is 20 mph), and they would carry their human cargo to planes sitting on the tarmac possibly a mile from the terminal. As it happens, there was a bar on board. It’s easy to imagine a group of “Mad Men”–type advertising executives drinking cocktails before flirting with the stewardesses.
In the late-1950s, Charles and Ray Eames made a short animated film, “The Expanding Airport,” extolling the virtues of the mobile lounge and said it might be serving “a few of the conveyances that have yet to come along.” This was eerily prescient, because NASA used a Plane Mate during the Space Shuttle program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The agency also had one at Edwards Air Force Base in Southern California.
However, the mobile lounge has become more of an anomaly than a legend. It turned out not to be the elegant, logical solution envisioned by Saarinen and Mr. and Mrs. Eames. Der Yuen’s jet bridge (though hardly as much fun as a cocktail-serving mobile lounge) was one reason. The moving walkway was another. And not having to pay a team of mobile lounge operators (they don’t like being called drivers) became a strong incentive to phase them out.
Ironically, it’s also air travel itself that has dampened enthusiasm. Mobile lounges struggle to accommodate today’s overwhelming numbers. And after being cooped up for hours in a metal cylinder, passengers like to reclaim their autonomy as soon as possible rather than be at the mercy of yet another form of mass transit.
Mobile lounges are still in use, though, at the Montreal–Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport, for example. And, for the time being, they still ferry international travelers at Dulles between the main terminal and Concourse D, who must be kept separate from domestic passengers until they have cleared customs. That sounds rather mundane, but it’s still a way of being transported back to the jet age, when air travel was considered glamorous.