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A short history of airport moving walkways

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 3/10/2016 Harriet Baskas

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“The moving walkway is now ending…..”

Moving sidewalks, flat escalators or Trav-O-Lator machines, as the Otis Elevator Company dubbed their patented version back in 1955, can be a godsend for tired travelers, for those who can’t walk long distances and anyone with a short connection on the other side of the airport.

But the technology predates airports, and even powered flight itself.

“No matter what you choose to call it, a moving walkway is a simple variation of the conveyor belt,” said Steve Showers, corporate archivist for the Otis Elevator Company, and the concept of a machine to move people horizontally was first introduced in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.  

A “Moving Pavement” transported people through exhibit areas at varying speeds during the Paris Expo in 1900, “but moving walkways did not come into common use until air travel and airports expanded in the 1950s,” says Showers.

“The man whose ancestors trekked West beside a covered wagon doesn’t want to haul his luggage from an airport terminal to an airliner 300 feet away,” an article promoting the new Otis Trav-O-Lator explained in 1955.

The first moving walkways in airports

The first moving sidewalks in an airport were installed in the Dallas Love Field Terminal, which opened in January, 1958.

Passengers could ride the moving walkways between the main terminal and the first gates in each of the airport’s three concourses, but “unfortunately, these modernistic devices were plagued with problems at the beginning, with mechanical shutdowns and mishaps involving women's clothing, high-heeled shoes, and minor injuries from the moving handrail,” writes  Bruce Bleakley, director of the Frontiers of Flight Museum in Dallas, in a forthcoming book about the history of Love Field.  

The airport was also the site of an early moving sidewalk tragedy.

“On New Year's Day 1960, a two-year-old girl was killed when her clothing became tangled in the area where the moving belt went beneath the metal step plate at the end,” writes Blakely, but after a six month shutdown, the moving walkways reopened with safety devices and human attendants in place.

Moving walkway mishaps at Love Field didn’t stop other airports from adopting the modern amenity.

In 1960, American Airlines installed moving walkways it dubbed “Astroways” in its Terminal 4 satellite at Los Angeles International Airport, inviting TV star Lucille Ball to the dedication.

“Just like jet bridges, moving walkways were a sign of the jet age,” says Raymond Kollau, founder of airlinetrends.com.  

Gallery along moving walkway in Terminal 3 at San Francisco International Airport. © Port of Portland Gallery along moving walkway in Terminal 3 at San Francisco International Airport. “Airports expanded in the sixties because more people could afford to travel by air and this meant larger distances had to be covered by passengers to get from the central terminal to their gate or from their arrival to their departure gate when in transit.”

Today’s larger airports and longer concourses makes moving walkways almost essential.

“The reasons have not changed,” says Jonathan Massey, aviation sector leader at the Corgan, architecture and design firm, “We put in moving walkways to let people get to their gates with fewer steps and less effort.”

Art along the moving walkway

While moving walkways are designed to get passengers in airports from here to there, there’s no rule that says the journey must be boring. 

Placing artwork along airport moving walkways “can transform an otherwise long, often lackluster connector into a positive visual experience,” said Leah Douglas, Director of Image and Chief Curator at Philadelphia International Airport, which has artwork along three of its moving walkways.

While United Airlines recently removed the moving walkways in Concourse C at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, “to improve the flow of passengers and enhance the travel experience for our customers,” according to airline spokesman Charles Hobart, the carrier has no plans to remove the moving walkways beneath the neon Sky’s the Limit sculpture above the moving walkway in the long underground tunnel between Concourses B and C.

Moving sidewalks pass by - or through - artwork and/or music in many other airports as well, including the Light Tunnel installation at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and Connection in the pedestrian bridge at Indianapolis International Airport.

And moving walkways at Los Angeles International Airport have had cameo roles in films and on TV, including in the 1967 film The Graduate, starring Dustin Hoffman and in the final season of AMC’s period drama Mad Men.

Faster and more efficient walkways

While moving walkways are still essentially conveyor belts for people, the companies that make them, such as Otis Elevator, Kone, Schindler, and Thyssenkrupp have made many design and safety improvements to the concept over the years

Energy-saving moving walkways that slow down when there are no users but accelerate to full speed when users approach are popular in Europe and other countries, but government regulations have kept those models out of the United States.

Still, in 2010 Portland International Airport received a variance to install stop/start motion activated walkways and, soon, Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport will install a device to increase the energy savings on some walkways too.  

Looking to the future,  Thyssenkrupp, has developed a high speed and high capacity moving walkway - called ACCEL - that uses maglev technology. The model has a belt that begins at normal walking speeds and then accelerates up to 7.5 mph at its top speed.

“As you come to the other end of the moving walkway, the belt decelerates back to the standard moving walkway speed and you step off just as you would on a regular moving walkway,” said Patrick Bass, CEO of Thyssenkrupp North America,

“It’s much better for the airport and the airlines because it gets people to the planes or to the retail areas much faster,” and with a better riding experience, he said.

Thyssenkrupp’s high-speed ACCEL walkway isn’t operating in any airport yet, but Bass says three major airports (none in the U.S.) are racing to be the first to have the new system.

In the meantime, passengers can ride an earlier, non-maglev version of the ACCEL, called Turbo Track. that was installed in 2010 in Pier F of Toronto Pierson International Airport.

“Travelling can be tiring and stressful so helping passengers connect to their flights quicker is just one of the many ways we try to help improve their experience,” says Toronto airport spokeswoman Shabeen Hanifa.

Walk this way

Finally, a word about moving walkway etiquette and that key question: walk or stand?

“Either is fine,” said Daniel Post Senning of the Emily Post Institute, but the accepted convention is to stand on the right and pass on the left.

“Airports are places where people are operating on different schedules,” said Senning. “Sometimes they’re late or trying to make a flight that’s expensive or important. So it’s both courteous and wise not to block the walkway. And remember that a moving walkway is not a jungle gym, a playground or a toy.”

Harriet Baskas is a Seattle-based airports and aviation writer and USA TODAY Travel's "At the Airport" columnist. Follow her at twitter.com/hbaskas.

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