I had way too much fun researching the history of the moving walkway for my At the Airport column this month on USA Today. Here’s an abbreviated version of the story.
We take them for granted, but 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 they’re neither complicated, nor that new.
“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.
A machine to move people horizontally was first introduced in 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Later, 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,” said 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.
There were some problems with that first one, “including 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, plus one death.
“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 that stop walkways from being adopted by other airports.
In 1960, American Airlines installed moving walkways it dubbed “Astroways” in its Terminal 4 satellite at Los Angeles International Airport. TV star Lucille Ball was on hand for the dedication.
“Just like jet bridges, moving walkways were a sign of the jet age,” said Raymond Kollau, founder of airlinetrends.com, “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,” said 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.
Many airports have art along their moving walkways.
For example – moving sidewalks pass by – or through – the Sky’s the Limit sculpture at O’Hare Airport, the Light Tunnel installation at Detroit Metropolitan Airport and through ‘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 design and safety improvements to the concept.
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.
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.
Thyssenkrupp’s high-speed ACCEL walkway isn’t operating in any airport yet, but three major airports ( none in the United States) 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.
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. And remember a moving walkway is not a jungle gym, a playground or a toy.”