The mobile lounge shuttles at Dulles International Airport have been involved in at least 16 collisions or mishaps since 2007, including two in the past year, a News4 I-Team investigation revealed.
Though many of the incidents were considered minor, one of the accidents was fatal and others caused injuries. Collectively, these incidents have raised questions about the safety of the mobile lounge system.
The mobile lounge vehicles are shuttles which carry passengers to areas of the airport which offer international flights or sections that are difficult to access via the airport’s train system. Many of the lounge vehicles were built and first deployed when the airport first opened in the 1960s.
The most recent mobile lounge mishap injured two passengers in October. A mobile lounge operator backed his vehicle into a construction pit. According to a police report, 29 passengers were aboard and two were transported to Reston Hospital Center with injuries. One of those passengers, Barbara Callahan, of Strasburg, Virginia, said she suffered a head injury in the accident, when she was flung into a poll inside the lounge.
“All I can remember is that there was a lurch forward,” Callahan said. “I flew forward and hit a pole.”
“It felt like a car hitting you from behind,” she said.
The mobile lounge operator was disciplined for his role in the accident, an airport official said.
“There was a breakdown in his driving behavior,” the official said. “I would classify it as a loss of situational awareness.”
In April, two mobile lounges collided, according to a police report obtained by the I-Team under the Freedom of Information Act. There were no injuries in the mishap, which happened late in the afternoon. One lounge operator turned the vehicle from a parking spot and struck another lounge, according to the police report.
Mishaps are rare and not indicative of any safety problems with the system, airport managers said. The mobile lounges will continue to be used through the “foreseeable future,” said Christopher Browne, who served as airport director through early 2017.
“We are always looking to make things safer,” Browne said. “They are extremely safe. They’re the safest vehicles operating on the airfield today.”
Browne confirmed the two mishaps in 2016 occurred within six months of each other. Regarding those mishaps, Browne said, “It's obviously an issue of concern that we have looked at very closely. I don't believe there's a theme or a thread that connects those two. We're looking at it as closely as we possibly can."
Most of the recent mishaps were minor, Browne said.
“Some were lounges backing into a bollard,” he said. “There was damage to the vehicle, certainly of no risk to passengers and others involved.”
Relatives of a baggage handler killed in a mobile lounge accident in 2012 said the recent mishaps indicate there are safety risks with the mobile lounge system. In the 2012 crash, a mobile lounge collided into a baggage cart driven by Jared Dodson of Loudoun County, Virginia. The collision tossed Dodson from his cart. According to a police report, the operator of the mobile lounge “failed to realize he has driving directly into the path that the (luggage) tug was traveling.”
His mother said Dodson had expressed concern about the safety of working near the mobile lounges prior to the fatal accident.
“I think it’s fair to say he never knew what hit him,” Dodson’s father said. “How could the (mobile lounge operator) not see a tug carrying four carts of luggage?”
“I think the mobile lounges are unsafe. They’re antiquated,” JC Dodson said. “New technologies that are available today are not being considered.”
An investigation of the deadly crash determined the driver of the mobile lounge was not at fault, Browne said.
In a series of court filings, attorneys for the Dodson family said the driver failed to make a proper 90-degree turn in the mobile lounge while turning near Dodson’s baggage cart.
The Dodson family sued the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority for civil damages. They settled for $2 million, according to court filings reviewed by the I-Team.
The court filings also reveal disputes between the Dodson family and the airport about potential safety risks in the mobile lounges. The lawsuit alleged visibility, including the view of the speedometer, is poor inside the driver’s cab of the mobile lounges.
The family’s lawsuit also said the airport’s decision to remove side windshield wipers from all of the mobile lounges risks creating visibility problems during rain. In a deposition conducted by attorneys in the civil lawsuit, the manager of the mobile lounge said the wipers were removed because they often broke off the vehicles when they docked at pickup locations.
The visibility of the speedometer is not a risk, because the lounges are not able to reach excessive levels of speed, Browne said. The speed limit for lounges is 20 mph.
The airport has issued violations against lounge operators for not following safety rules, Browne said.
In a statement to police in 2012, the operator of the mobile lounge involved in the fatal crash with Dodson said, “I’m sure darkness contributed to the accident.” He also said, “Smaller vehicles don’t always see us, or sometimes they don’t pay attention to us.”
The airport added new exterior lighting to the lounges after the fatal accident in 2012, Browne said.
“The strobe lights on the lounges help other people see the mobile lounges, but they don’t stop a driver from driving over somebody on the flight line,” Dodson’s father told the I-Team.
The airport should also consider banning mobile lounge operators from carrying cellphones, to ensure none is operating a lounge while texting or making calls, Dodson’s parents said.
Though the airport prohibits the use of phones by operators while inside the vehicles, it does not ban operators from carrying their phones while on duty. The lounges are not equipped with cockpit cameras to monitor operators and their cellphone usage, Dodson’s family said.
The airport’s ban on cellphone use by mobile operators is an effective deterrent against driver distraction, Browne said.
Callahan, the Virginia woman injured in the October, said she is surprised the airport continues to use the vehicles.
“I always thought there were better ways of doing things,” she said.
The lounge shuttles are crucial for airport operations, particularly in ferrying passengers to international flights, Browne said. International passengers must be kept secure and separated from other airport travelers until they are formally cleared through customs. The mobile lounges allow the airport to do so, Browne said.
Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough and Ashley Brown, and shot and edited by Jeff Piper.