Is Washington Dulles America's Best Worst Airport?

Is Washington Dulles America's Best Worst Airport?

You are unlikely to hear anyone sing the praises of Washington Dulles airport, located in the distant northern Virginia suburbs of the DC metro area.  Routinely found on "worst airports" lists, Dulles may not even be the second choice for the area, compared to centrally located Washington National or the better reputation of Baltimore-Washington International Airport.  What Dulles does have in its favor though, is a unique architectural experience that preserves the features of early jet age experimentation, while accommodating the complex demands of 21st-century air travel.  

Designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, and completed in 1962, Dulles is one of a handful of early explorations in airport designs that also included Saarinen's TWA Flight Center and the Pan Am Worldport—both at what is now JFK Airport in New York—and the only one that still retains so much of its original design while remaining in operation (the Worldport was demolished in 2013, and the TWA Flight Center has been closed to the public since 2001 and is awaiting conversion to a hotel).  Since its original completion Saarinen's initial concept of "mobile lounges" (more on these later) has been jettisoned in favor of long, banal satellite concourses that house the aircraft gates, and an expansive underground complex houses the ballooning space needs of security, immigration, and customs functions, as well as a train to connect to the concourses, but the iconic terminal building and many original details remain. 

 Dulles terminal building at dusk.  ( Photo by By Joe Ravi , via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0) 

Dulles terminal building at dusk.  (Photo by By Joe Ravi, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0) 

Sitting on a raised plinth, the angled colonnade of the temple-like terminal building nods to the neoclassical architecture that dominates the nearby capital city, while the sweeping curve of the cable-suspended roof echoes the optimism and technological innovation of the early jet age.  Curving glass fills the spaces between the columns, providing a direct visual connection from the passenger drop-off area to the planes waiting on the tarmac beyond.  Check-in desks are located in the center of the space, providing generous circulation space around the perimeter of the building.  Despite its distinctly modern styling, the terminal building harkens back to the grand spaces that were once the rule in civic structures, rather than the exception.

 Dulles terminal interior.  ( Photo by Acroterion , via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Dulles terminal interior.  (Photo by Acroterion, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The overlooked innovation that enabled the singular stately terminal structure was Saarinen’s concept for “mobile lounges.”  With air travel growing exponentially in the post-war period, Saarinen realized that airport concourses would have to stretch for hundreds or thousands of feet to accommodate the increasing number of flights and the growing size of planes.  Instead of long arduous treks to the gate, he proposed lounges that could take passengers directly to their planes.  Like a waiting room on wheels, the mobile lounges would transport passengers from the terminal building directly to the planes, where adjustable-height legs and covered walkways provided seamless connections, no matter the size of the aircraft.  Saarinen even commissioned Charles and Ray Eames to produce a film to help sell the idea to the FAA and the airport authority.

The “mobile lounge” concept eliminated the need for long corridors of gates, and removed the inflexibility of gates sized for particular aircraft.  Unfortunately, despite the posh images, complete with cocktail waitresses in each lounge, the concept was almost immediately obsolete, unable to keep up with growing passenger traffic, and airline demands for dedicated gates.  The mobile lounges have been largely replaced with satellite concourses housing aircraft gates.  Ironically, these long concourses—lacking the moving walkways that are now standard in many airports—recreate the long walking distances that Saarinen and the Eameses were trying to avoid.

Even though the mobile lounges are no longer a main feature of Dulles, many other interior features retain the original feel.  Rejecting the shopping mall aesthetic that has overtaken many newer airports, signage and wayfinding at Dulles retain mid-century typefaces and styles.  In the lower level baggage claim area, a luminous ceiling effect reinforces the period feel of the space.

 Luminous ceiling on lower level.  ( Photo by flickr user Ralph Hockens  via Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Luminous ceiling on lower level.  (Photo by flickr user Ralph Hockens via Creative Commons, CC BY 2.0)

Of course, not all of the original features remain.  A restaurant perched in the control, for example, is no longer open.  And the gate areas lack any of the charm and character of the terminal building.  But even though savvy travellers will likely prefer the underground train, the few remaining mobile lounges are still available to access some flights and gates, for a more nostalgic ride.

 Dulles mobile lounge.  ( Photo by flickr user paul_houle  via Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

Dulles mobile lounge.  (Photo by flickr user paul_houle via Creative Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0)

In a way, the unpopularity of Dulles has been its saving grace.  In recent years Washington National has overtaken it in passenger numbers, relieving the pressure to make major changes.  And with changes in the air travel industry that include daunting security procedures and checked bag fees, passengers are more likely to rush through the terminal, missing the best that this airport has to offer.  But in an era when mid-century style and fashion still hold outsized influence, Dulles is the only American airport where passengers can really get a feel for the so-called Golden Age of air travel.  A long-awaited extension of the DC Metro will make Dulles somewhat more convenient for residents and visitors, and may help to rehabilitate the airports image somewhat.  Hopefully those future visitors to the airport will take a moment to appreciate the historic architectural achievement of the terminal building and the innovative, if outdated, mobile lounges that made it possible.

Sources for this story include Eero Saarinen, 1910-1961: A Structural Expressionist by Pierluigi Serraino, and Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, edited by Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and Donald Albrecht.