The Plane Mate: Friend or Foe?

Guest Posts, IAD - Washington/Dulles

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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21 comments on “The Plane Mate: Friend or Foe?

  1. As a kid I used to love the Plane Mates, thinking of them as huge dump trucks like one would find in an open pit mine only converted to carry people.

    The one benefit to them today is the discipline they enforce as far as running late to the airport. No hope of a mad dash to the plane if you have to wait on the Plane Mate.

    As far as long walks, I wonder from the readers which airport they consider today to have the longest walk without motorized transport of any kind except maybe moving sidewalks.

    My vote is the last gate from either end of T5 (International) at O’Hare. Other long walks I’ve had is United’s FIS at T7 in LAX and the walk from the end of the pier at HKG just to get to the train that runs to Immigrations.

    Any other similar or worse walks out there?

  2. Hmm, Back when I flew into BGM, at the hub airport (usually PIT) we’d have to take a bus out to the regional props all the time then walk across the ramp to the plane. PlaneMates are desirable in my book over a bus, but not over a jetbridge.

    Now when we got to BGM you’d have to just walk over the ramp. I remember one door was “Gates 1, 2, 3, 4” then you’d have little walking paths to the right plane. I remember once or twice boarding the plane in a snow storm the gate agent would say the plane is over there, and you couldn’t see the thing.

    The planemate has its applications, I’d actually like to go ride in one but I’ven’t had any reason to be at IAD.

  3. No thanks. I’m perfectly capable of walking, and I usually have my backpack and messenger bag on my back as carry-on luggage only.

    Given that people with large luggage usually check it and can retrieve it 40 feet from the door (where shuttles await,) what exactly is the problem with walking? For those with large carry ons luggage gear now is more ergonomic and everything seems to be on wheels, eliminating strain. I even see people walking around downtown and boarding buses and light rail with roller wheely things.

    At many airports you drive to a remote parking lot, hop into a shuttle, (or shuttle from motel,) then in some airports like DEN or ATL board a tram to access your concourse. The last thing I want is to be forced to sit down in another tiny little habitit and WAIT for something to depart. (I’m impatient and would rather get there on my own terms.)

    I’ve only used a mobile loung once, in Mexico City to a remote Mexicana plane. Like the article I too didn’t realize I wasn’t entering a jetway. I’m headed through IAD to South America in September. If I end up using it I’ll be sure to take some photos.

    Even if you have a 1/4 mile walk from security to your gate I say suck it up and enjoy the walk.

  4. I forgot to mention above that when picture all the little transit devices and rooms to move through – (tram, elevators, shuttle cars, plane mates,) it made me think of the movie Wall-E – where the futuristic population relied on hovercraft devices to move transport them to the shortest distances.

    Nope I’ll walk. In fact I almost always choose to walk over the bridge at DEN – (which can access all concourses.) Although a moderate walk by airport standards it provides great views of the terminal and city, and leads to a shorter security checkpoint.

  5. James – I agree with the benefits of walking more so than the time or impatience factor as well as the reference to Wall-E.
    Car or train to the airport, shuttle to the terminal, moving sidewalks, more transportation to the plane in some cases…where’s the exercise?

    After a long (12+ hours) overseas flight walking is the best way to energize the cardio-vascular, loosen stiff muscles and get the blood flowing (recall the article on Deep Vein Thrombosis). Anyone overloaded with carry-on items might want to rethink what is really essential to ease the burden.

    At the same time, anything more than a mile might need to airport re-planning! Long flight, long walk, long lines? Not always attractive.

  6. Little disclaimer at the top – my home airport is LHR which, in my humble opinion, is a pile of proverbial and I resent having to use it as frequently as I do.

    I’ve ended up using IAD 4 or 5 times a year for a few years now, and whilst I can appreciate the architecture of the main concourse, I resent using the s*dding Plane Mates, particularly when you’ve just flown 7 or 8h +. You don’t have a choice, arriving on an international flight, as these poorly a/c’d buses take you to the Immigration halls where you just pray that an Ethiopian Airlines flight has not just arrived, 20 mins ahead of you.

    DEN is a better arrangement, if you’re going to have these huge floating concourses. As with James, the walk is far more preferable than being couped up in a stinking can with 70 other people who similarly don;t want to be there.

    But as I said at the top, nothing beats LHR for shear sh1teness. I fly UA, so have had to endure T3 for a decade, and the UA gates were always a quarter of a mile from the arrivals hall/immigration, with only a 50:50m chance of the walkways actually working. However, the new UA gates in T1 are even worse, for other reasons – the walk may be marginally shorter from T1 departure lounge (don’t get me started on the Star Alliance ‘lounge’ – yeh, right), and the gates are lovely and bright, but they are small, cramped and awful at boarding.

    SFO is a happy medium – it’s just a bit dull if the weather’s so bad you can’t see out!

  7. Although I’ve never been through Dulles or gotten the chance to experience one of these mobile lounges, I do have an idea for a possible use for them. Keep one or two of these at airports that see a lot of incliment weather, such as severe winter storms, and harden them for the climate (snow tires, for example). Then, if you have conditions where flights are cancelled and diverted, and you have more planes on the ground than available gates (think back to jetBlue JFK incident back in ’07), then you have a way to deplane passengers in the planes that are stuck on the apron rather than leaving them stranded in the plane for hours.

    1. That’s a great idea! I wonder if they are already used in this capacity…. Probably not. It makes too much sense.

  8. While I never boarded a plane using those mobile movers, I have used them to change terminals at JFK and STL between TWA flights. They came in handy so as not to walk the long round about way. Saved time when trying to connect.

    They do make sense at locations that more traffic then gates or at airports during winter that have passengers sitting on planes on the tarmac waiting for a gate to open after an a big storm cancels flights. Maybe eliminate those poor people who are trapped, these mobile units could move right up to the door and people just walk right on to them.

  9. Bobber – You’re not going to believe this but I actually enjoy Heathrow! It’s a complete and utter shambles except maybe the new T5 but it’s about the only place in the world it seems where everyone in the world happens to be at the same time! Bleary-eyed and groggy from a long flight, perhaps but I’ve never been more than 30 minutes thru immigrations where I always marvel at how the officers are able to interpret so many passports in the relative blink of an eye.

    I also hear you about the 3rd world flight arriving ahead of yours. I experienced something like that in Paris many moons ago. Our American Airlines flight arrived at the gate not five minutes behind an IranAir flight at Orly. As soon as the door opened almost the entire plane RAN for immigrations to get there and process ahead of the Iranian flight. No one was worried about starting a fight in the terminal – we all pretty much just believed that an American passport would get handled a lot faster than an Iranian one.

    We were wrong. On all counts.

  10. I used to love the Plane Mates when I flew out of YMX (back then, IB used to do YMX-MEX). You’d get in the shuttle and unload directly onto the plane. They could even use multiple doors / multiple Plane Mates to load a 747 quickly. I thought it was the most futuristic thing ever.

    As opposed to that experience, now when I fly thru IAD, I absolutely hate the moon buggies. The problem with IAD is that they don’t save you any time/walking. They’re basically glorified buses. You’re still walking 1/2 mile to your gate through a dilapidated terminal with insufficient seats/space.

  11. @TTO,

    Since they re-did T1, the new immigration hall there is much improved and I’m not embarrassed to watch visitors to Britain waiting to be abused by our officials (which was always the case in T3). I think I underestimated the walk from the UA gates in T3 to immigration – at least half a mile, probably more on most days! In T1, that’s cut down a lot.

    I haven’t used T5 and probably won’t (BA only), but I’m interested to see what the new intra-terminal transport at T5 will be like.

  12. @Bobber,

    I’ve used all four of the originals in my travels around the UK, over to the Continent and overseas as well. I remember T1 on the east as being the best for eastbound takeoffs while T3 had the best views for westbound departures.

    The other thrill to me before the Paddington Express was the Tube in to London. It was slow but rattled and rolled so much between Hounslow West and Hammersmith in some places I felt it would actually jump the track!

    For me I found that the EL from O’Hare to downtown Chicago is even louder but doesn’t shimmy and shake as much as the Tube. The T in Boston is somewhere in that mix while my vote for best train in to the city is either (thank God they finally built it) BART from SFO or the MARTA from Atlanta. Both are whisper quiet and particularly fast. Same goes for the Airport Express from Hong Kong in to Kowloon and Central.

    Any others?

  13. @TTO

    From the BMI gates in T1 (1-10 I think) you get a great view of the runway – the UA gates give you a limited view.

    BART form SFO is just brilll – as for the Heathrow Express, yet another item of embarassment for me. Ridiculously expensive. I live at the other end of the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow (some 37 stops away) so whenever I get the tube to Heathrow it takes nearly 2 hours! The EL is a great journey to downtown Chicago as well.

  14. @Bobber

    Agreed. Paddington is over-priced for only part of the journey that may still include taxi, bus or the Tube to get to the final destination.
    WOW! Other end of the Picadilly? I thought it was a slog when I took it all the way to Russell Square where I was staying one holiday.

    Do they have shared limo service in London similar to Super Shuttle in the US that might help with the expense and travel time?

  15. These horrible contraptions are not comfortable in the least, add to local air pollution, and further congest taxiways at IAD. Get stuck on one of these things after a long haul and then you must wait another 5 minutes for it to depart? Crikes! Oh and the same bozos who brought the kitchen sink as a carryon must bring that aboard too, (there’s no overhead bin or place to stash large cases). Fun to trip over when you (eventually) get to the main terminal.

    During peak hours at IAD they’re like a cramped subway train. Not how to keep anyone happy either in past or present. They cost a ton to fuel, pay drivers to operate, and maintain…surely more than a modern automated train system (unless it is run by the same bureaucrats who have taken decades to get a train actually built at IAD).

    Good riddance, I can’t wait to use IAD without one!

  16. @TTO

    Not really, mate. If you pre-book a cab (so not normally a London black cab) you can get to anywhere within 30 or 40 miles of Heathrow for about £50 – you’ve probably guessed that Heathrow really isn’t well situated for a sensible Super Shuttle service. But I guess we’re stuck with it now :(.

  17. Bobber – So many US airports desperately need affordable rail service. DFW, Denver, Dulles for starters. Fifty pounds for a taxi or two hours on the Tube? All for the sake of 12 hours to LA after that?

    And to think we complain over here!

  18. When I was about 5 I flew on a late night transatlantic from JFK. I fell asleep on the plane mate, and was very disappointed when I was woken up a few minutes later to find out that it wasn’t actually the plane…

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