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At Dulles, The Tarmac Is Their Turf
Mobile Lounge Operators Keep Airport in Motion

By Arianne Aryanpur
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

Today, "they have such a negative aura to them with the public," said Girolami, who has operated lounges since 1994. "People tend to feel like they don't have control, since they're usually in such a hurry."

Abdul Ebadi, a lounge operator for four years, said much of his job involves pacifying travelers who frequently bemoan the vehicle's top speed: 25 mph.

"From a psychologist's point of view, I try to make them happy," he said. "I talk with passengers and give them information."

The lounges at Dulles have also been the site of a few celebrity encounters. For Windsor, the most recent include meeting Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Muhammad Ali.

Windsor recalled another trip that was memorable for a different reason: Upon arrival at the terminal, a passenger got off the lounge, looked around puzzled and blurted, "Wait a minute, this isn't Dallas." Windsor escorted the passenger to an American Airlines ticket counter, where he confirmed that the man should have been on a flight to Texas, not to Virginia.

The lounges once had a straight shot between the terminal and the jets, and later the concourses that opened beginning in the 1980s. But navigating the crowded hardstand has become increasingly tricky because of construction from the airport's D2 improvement project. On a recent day, Girolami managed the traffic by frequently coming to a crawl to avoid other lounges and service vehicles.

Maneuvering the tarmac is even more challenging at night, when glare and harsh lighting make distances of less than a mile seem daunting. During a winter storm in 1983, Windsor said, he struggled to navigate the lounge through howling winds and unrelenting snow that created whiteout conditions.

"I got lost on the runway," recalled Windsor, who had to stop mid-route and regain his bearings. "Eventually I found my way to the dock."

But for every instance of bad weather, there are the beautiful days, and the even more picturesque evenings, when the red-orange sun sets over the airport's 11,830 acres.

Windsor "is known for making sure everyone looks at the scenery," Girolami said. "If he sees a beautiful sunset, he'll get over the radio and say: 'Take a look, neighbor.' "

As the airport serves increasing numbers of passengers, officials predict that the role of lounges and lounge operators will diminish.

In a few years, MWAA anticipates that most of the 19 lounges -- there are 30 Plane Mates -- will be replaced by an automated train, which will whiz underground at speeds as high as 42 mph.

But Windsor doesn't seem fazed by the new technology: "The lounges were good in their heyday, and they'll continue to serve a purpose," he said.

In fact, Gerry Dillion, who supervises the lounge division, said he doesn't expect any layoffs, given normal attrition rates.

"The airport is so large and has the capability of so much growth, I believe in the foreseeable future there will be Plane Mates and mobile lounges in some capacity," he said, "although certainly in a lessened capacity."

Not that Windsor -- who lives in Clinton, Md., with his wife of 47 years -- was planning on leaving anytime soon.

Helen Windsor has frequently wondered why her husband doesn't retire. And his answer is always the same: "The high cost of living."

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