The Plane Mate: Friend or Foe?

Cranky is on vacation, but I’ve lined up some excellent guest bloggers for you while I’m gone. Today I have a guest post from Flight Wisdom.

Washington’s Dulles Airport began construction on September 2, 1958. The airport was designed by Eero Saarinen, also responsible for the historic TWA terminal at New York’s JFK airport, with a view toward finding the “soul of the airport.” The terminal in question is a beautiful one, but the truly interesting thing about Dulles Airport is its mobile lounges and Plane Mates.

The Cranky Flier sounded the death knell for the mobile lounge back in May of 2007. But first, a few facts: The Plane Mate was constructed as a 54-foot long, 16-foot wide, 17 1/2-foot high vehicle, and could carry 102 passengers, 71 of them seated, between terminal areas. Today, Dulles operates 19 mobile lounges and 30 Plane Mates, which are similar to the lounges but can transport passengers from the terminals, directly onto the airplane by attaching itself to the aircraft.

However, as he mentioned, the mobile lounges create a great deal of ground traffic, and the era of the lounge comes to an end when the new Aerotrain opens this year.

The idea of the Plane Mate sounds great. You board a vehicle and it takes you directly to the plane. It allows for an entirely different approach to airports than what we are used to. While the device is used at many airports, at none is it so obvious as it is at Dulles.

Time Magazine, in June of 1971, reporting on Pan Am’s use of the Plane Mate, said:

As anachronistic as they seem, Plane-Mates represent just one more way in which airlines are attempting to ease the physical strain on air travelers at large airports, where the distances between ticket counters and loading gates (and between parking lots and terminal buildings) have grown to exhausting extremes. Negotiating that distance—especially for late arrivals who must carry their luggage directly to the loading gate, usually on the dead run—is a traumatic experience that is disenchanting increasing numbers of air travelers. At J.F.K., passengers may have to walk as far as 1,130 feet to reach their departure gate.

Of course, the article also promises that “by 1980, air-cushion vehicles will connect Los Angeles with the 18,000-acre airport complex scheduled to be built at Palmdale, 65 miles north of the city.” We all know how that turned out.

Despite the fact it was called anachronistic almost 40 years ago, the Plane Mate lives on. The last time we recall seeing flights use a Plane Mate at Terminal 2 at JFK when we used to hang around there a lot in the Summer of 2001. You may not be aware that the Plane Mate is still in construction today, despite being seen by most as obsolete. The manufacturer lists the benefits as:

  • Reduces parking congestion at the terminal
  • Reduces transfer and aircraft turnaround time
  • Lowers fuel cost and aircraft taxi time
  • Increases comfort and security for all passengers
  • Provides easy-on, easy-off wheelchair access
  • Reduces walking distances for elder or physically-challenged passengers

Sounds good, but considering the opposing viewpoints on this issue, we have to ask: Is the Plane Mate failed technology, or did we merely abandon it instead of fixing any limitations it might have?

As for alternatives, we certainly can’t say we prefer the moving sidewalk/people movers many airports have nowadays. We like projects like the Aerotrain, but passengers will still have to walk. After a long plane ride, the last thing most people want is a long hike to the baggage claim.

What do you think?

Flight Wisdom pairs the insights of a travel insider with roundups of the latest airline news. Flight Wisdom Blog ( as well as its daughter site, Infrequent Flier (, are now available on Twitter @flightwisdom. Comments are eagerly welcomed.

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