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People Movers Ease Airport Hassles

Washington/Dulles inaugurated its new billion-dollar “people mover” last week, and it should make life a lot easier for you whether you live in the area, visit the area, or have to change planes there. Dulles joins a number of other airports around the United States—and the world—that offer an easier and more convenient alternative to trekking through endless corridors or schlepping on and off buses.
The Dulles system is linear, linking the main terminal area with stops at each of the several remote concourses where most of the airport’s gates are located. Automated “trains” ply back and forth along a track system, providing trips every few minutes.

Although I haven’t tried it yet, I’m sure it’s a big improvement over the “mobile lounges” used previously. When Dulles was first built, the designers had the “brilliant” idea to eliminate the long concourses and corridors typical of big airports. Instead, they decided to locate all the departure “gates,” side by side, along one side of the center terminal. For departures, the mobile lounges—something like buses, but about twice as wide and capable of elevating—would dock at these gates, load travelers, and go directly to airplanes parked on the tarmac, where they would elevate the lounge’s cabin up to airplane floor levels and transfer travelers directly across an extensible ramp to airplane doors. Arrivals reversed the process.

Some travelers liked this system; others didn’t. In either case, however, the combination of airport reconfiguration for security screening, bigger planes, and overall traffic increases overloaded the original system. Instead, Dulles built conventional multi-gate concourses parallel to the main terminal and used the mobile lounges to transfer travelers between concourses and the terminal. Nobody liked that system.

The new system should finally solve the terminal transfer problem—at least most of it. However, there is no way to segregate arriving international travelers on the people mover, so if you enter the United States through Dulles, you’ll still have to use a mobile lounge to get to the international arrivals and customs area. No cure for that problem is on the horizon.

The new Dulles system represents one of two types of airport people-mover:

  • “Airside” systems, such as at Dulles, operate within secured areas; they transfer travelers between concourses/gate areas and main terminals. They’re a great boon to anyone who has to use a big airport, and especially to travelers who change planes at these airports. These people-mover systems avoid much of the usual airport trudging, busing, or stairways—they’re accessible by elevator and/or escalator. Other big U.S. hub airports, including Atlanta, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Denver, Detroit, Houston/Bush, Las Vegas, and Seattle, operate full or partial airside systems. Good airside people movers are a big reason to prefer one of these hubs when you have a choice of connecting itineraries—you can change planes and even change airlines without having to leave one security area and re-enter another. The downside to airside systems is that they can’t get you to areas outside the security perimeter, such as parking lots, rental car centers, public transit stations, and airport hotels.
  • “Landside” systems, operating entirely outside of secured areas, connect individual terminal buildings at large, decentralized airports. Among the big U.S. hub airports, Chicago/O’Hare and New York/Kennedy operate such systems; Phoenix is building one, and Minneapolis-St. Paul uses the public light rail to connect its two terminals. The advantage to such systems is that they can take you to rental car centers, transit stations, and remote parking areas. The downside is that you have to leave one secured area and go through re-screening at another if you have to change terminals.

You find similar systems of either type at some major foreign hub airports, as well. Unfortunately, two of the most important such hubs—London/Heathrow and Paris/De Gaulle—lack airside systems. Hubbing there isn’t bad if you remain with one airline, but changing terminals is major grief. Try some other hub if you can.

Do you find people movers more convenient than other forms of transportation around an airport? What airports do you think need a better system for getting from terminal to terminal? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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