At Dulles, The Tarmac Is Their Turf
Thursday, February 2, 2006
Lori Girolami docked the huge mobile lounge so gently that it was easy to forget the imposing dimensions of the vehicle she was driving: 18 feet high, 53 feet long.
The doors swung open, and passengers at Dulles International Airport -- many clutching briefcases, others gabbing on cell phones or listening to iPods -- darted toward their gates.
Girolami waited a few minutes for the lounge to refill with travelers, joking with a fellow operator in the concourse. Then she hit the switch that shut the doors and inched back across the tarmac to her starting point less than a mile away.
She made the trip a hundred more times on this day, just as 101 other operators do daily for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.
"I've been doing this my entire life," said Ralph I. Windsor Jr., who, like many of the mobile lounge operators, comes from a career in public transportation. Before starting at MWAA in 1979, Windsor drove a bus for D.C. Public Transit.
Now 70, Windsor is one of Dulles's oldest and most recognized operators.
"He calls everybody neighbor," Girolami said.
His explanation for the moniker: "I don't remember everybody's names."
Mobile lounges and their operators -- they frown at "driver" -- have been a necessary component of Dulles since its construction in 1962. For many passengers, they are the airport's defining characteristic.
The lounges were built specifically for Dulles, to transport passengers from the terminal to their aircraft, said Dave Norman, airport duty manager. (Dulles later added a second, similar vehicle, the Plane Mate, to its fleet.)
"It was considered an innovative approach to moving people around," Norman said.
The assumption behind Finnish architect Eero Saarinen's iconic design for Dulles was that people wouldn't mind sitting in a cushioned lounge for the few minutes it would take to get to their plane. That, of course, was long before Dulles handled 20 million passengers a year.