A look at the new AeroTrain system at Dulles Airport

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 6, 2010

Suddenly, Dulles is different.

One week after the debut of the AeroTrain that is replacing the airport's familiar -- and reviled -- mobile lounge transport system, the traveler's experience at Dulles International Airport is forever changed. And unless your nostalgia for one of traveldom's more peculiar modes of getting passengers from check-in terminal to the gates outweighs your love of speedy progress to your plane, it's a change for the better.

Gone, for most passengers, is the uniquely Dulles sensation of emerging from a crushing security line and bolting to the doorway of the mobile lounge only to be greeted by this digital heartbreaker: "5 Minutes to Next Shuttle." Since five minutes in rushing-traveler-time feels more like five hours, that forced idleness -- which sometimes morphed into a considerably longer wait -- and the awkward vehicle's stately trundle to the gates always produced an outsize agony. For many Washington area passengers, the mobile lounges were the No. 1 reason to fly out of Baltimore instead of Dulles.

With the clock ticking toward takeoff, the mobile lounge -- it looks like an extra-wide bus on accordion stilts, or a robotic insect from a bad 1960s sci-fi flick -- seemed to plunge the traveler into a vat of molasses, from the painfully slow hydraulic lowering of the 102-passenger vehicle from gate level to ground level, to the slow backing away from the dock.

The boxy aluminum lounges have been a fixture at Dulles since 1962. At first, they delivered passengers straight to their plane and seemed just the right fit for Eero Saarinen's ultramodern airport design.

But as concourse gates were added and Dulles headed toward 20 million passengers a year, the Chrysler-built lounges began to feel like clunky buses lumbering through a dangerous environment. Fires broke out in more than one of the lounges, and a ground-crew worker was run over and killed in 1999. In 2001, a lounge rammed a Jersey wall and sent 10 passengers to the hospital. In 2003, Dulles contracted with Sumitomo Corp. for an upgrade to underground trains.

The AeroTrain, by contrast, provides impatient fliers with the zippy momentum they crave. With trains every two minutes and a satisfying full-speed sensation through the tunnel (topping off at 42 mph), the trip to the mid-concourse gates near the runways feels much more like a nonstop journey.

Of course, once you leave the train, Dulles's stingy designers have still left you with a long trudge and multiple escalators to reach the gates. But at least you're Not. Just. Sitting. There.

Worth $1.5 billion, the projected price tag? Who knows, but it's been clear for years that Dulles is too big and too busy for travelers to face a clunky bus ride plopped into the middle of their departure sprint.

I tested the trains nearly a week after their inaugural run. Technical hiccups have brought the AeroTrain to a standstill twice, once from a burst water pipe and once from a door left open in a tunnel. But the system was all green lights when I showed up late one morning to take a few runs. (Airport officials said they could not clear a Post reporter through security to test the new train earlier this week, so the newspaper bought a flight ticket to gain access.)

Actually, the improved departure routine begins even before you reach the train. The pair of vast security halls that opened last fall, with dozens of new scanners, has gone a long way toward absorbing the huge lines that used to clog so much of the airport's main lobby. Entering the Transportation Security Administration gantlet is still no picnic, especially at peak travel times. But the new security center was designed with the trains in mind, and when the feds finish with you and you're hopping into your shoes, you find yourself very close to the AeroTrain station.

The platform is a mighty, vaulted space of contoured concrete walls. Tyvek wrap remains on some upper windows, and the place is rich with that new-airport smell. The gleaming stone floor is flanked by parallel tunnels made of glowing square tubes of frosted glass.

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