Government waste at its worst, Washington Dulles is renovating its “mobile lounges” moon buggies at a staggering cost of up to $160 Million.
What Is A Mobile Lounge?
Travelers to Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD) have long utilized a unique transportation vehicle known as a Mobile Lounge. This scissor-lifted 1960s relic harkens back to the early space age and is affectionately known as the “moon buggy” by frquent travelers.
“The mobile lounge/people movers get airport passengers from the main terminal to Concourse D, which is not connected to the aerotrain. The plane mates act like a mobile jet bridge, taking passengers right up to the door of parked planes.
Dulles was created at the peak of the jet age when airports were getting bigger and passengers no longer walked up a staircase to a propeller plane. Dulles architect Eero Saarinen saw mobile lounges as a convenient way to shorten walks from ticket counters to far-off planes.” – DCist
Onboard, there is seating like on a subway with seats against the walls, and middle with poles for those standing to steady themselves during movement.
Mobile Lounges depart dedicated areas and drive on the tarmac to the disconnected terminal. Underground subway trains connect some but not all aspects of the terminal and those stops are not as convenient as airports such as Dallas/Fort Worth or Houston Bush Intercontinental whereby trains run along the terminals and stop intermittently between within terminals as well as connecting them.
Dulles Renovation Program
The 60-year old vehicles are in need of repair. In total, 49 vehicles operate this segment of traveler movement. The Washington Airport Authority that greenlit the first two of the program was hesitant. It doesn’t feel the Mobile Lounges are the best feature of the airport, yet agreed to spend $8 million each for two test refurbishments before putting the full refurbishment in place.
“If airport officials are pleased with the renovations from the Brookville Equipment Corporation, they’ll have to vote on whether or not to fix the rest of the 18 mobile lounges and 29 plane mate vehicles over the next six years. That project is slated to cost $160 million in total. MWAA first put it out for procurement before the pandemic, but now costs have gotten higher thanks to the specialized components.” – DCist
Manufacturers no longer make the short-lived vehicle so replacement parts will be constructed bespoke.
That budget seems incredibly expensive. There’s no advantage that I can see to the lounges over busses with the exception of the vehicle’s elevation removing the need for elevators and escalators to take connecting travelers to ground level and simply board busses.
It feels like a clear case of governmental waste. Is there not a manufacturer that could rennovate or even build brand new vehicles for less? What about alternative solutions?
Other Solutions To Replace The Mobile Lounge
Elon Musk, among his other businesses (he actively runs four of them at the moment not including Twitter) manages The Boring Company. The aptly-named business bores tunnels underneath the surface to make way for subways, or subsurface expressways. His bids are far less than retail and he has successfully completed one in Las Vegas, as well as one in southern California. His bid for an 1.7 mile Miami tunnel was just $30 million and a completion period of six months (just 8% of the completion time of thi project.) At that price and distance, the Boring Company could run so many lines to remain cheaper than the current plan that it’s unconscionable to consider anything else. At less than 2,000 feet between terminals, The Boring Company could add 47,872 feet of bores or about 24 new subways, enough to supply quick transport to other terminals about every one and a half gates apart.
One firm that specializes in environmentally-responsible buses offers a battery-powered option for $850,000 per bus, or $535,000 for natural gas-powered buses. Assuming the rate increased from when the source article was written (2021) to even $1 million per bus, the approved budget could allow for 160 buses to replace the comparable capacity mobile lounges for which the airport has just 49. If Dulles were to replace just the 49, with natural gas-powered options (two times better than the diesel it currently burns, and cheaper to operate), the airport could maintain its fleet size but save more than $133 million.
Remote stands are common in airports across the world from Frankfurt to Dubai to Bangkok. Aircraft are parked on unused tarmac well away from the terminal and bussed in. It’s less convenient than boarding from a jetbridge, but so is getting to Terminal D at Dulles anyway, why complicate it with overpriced infrastructure in a relic of a bygone era?
This is a perfect example of government waste (or a governmental body.) The solution that might have been revolutionary at the time is now the least useful possible solution to this very common problem. Despite conventional options aplenty, even in this sample size, the airport authority has options that are cheaper, faster, and better but has decided against them. The space shuttle was conceived almost two decades after these went into service and it’s already been retired for 15 years. The airport authority is overpaying for a bad, slow solution.
What do you think? Should Dulles renovate the Mobile Lounges or scrap them in favor of an alternative? Which solution do you prefer?