Correction: This story has been updated to correct references to where Jared Dodson’s baggage tug was struck by a mobile lounge. He was struck on the airplanes’ taxiway, not runway.
On a dark, misty morning in January 2012, Southwest Airlines ramp agent Jared Dodson steered his baggage tug, with four empty carts behind him, out of the main terminal at Dulles International Airport and headed toward Concourse B. He came to a complete stop as he reached Taxiway B, then continued straight across the airplanes’ taxiway.
As Dodson crossed the taxiway, a 35-ton mobile lounge with a handful of passengers aboard, driven toward Concourse D by Kenneth L. Smith Jr., made a diagonal beeline toward him on the taxiway at about twice Dodson’s speed, investigative records show. Smith said he never saw Dodson’s tug below him, and he smashed into two of Dodson’s empty carts. The impact hurled Dodson under the wheels of the mobile lounge, crushing him. Dodson remained conscious for a time, as horrified co-workers rushed to his side, but he died the next day. He was 25. Dodson’s parents, J.C. and Nancy Dodson of Paeonian Springs in Loudoun County, worked with Southwest and the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, waiting to hear the details of what had happened to their son — and why. But as the months passed, they learned nothing more. Smith was not given a traffic ticket, so no information was going to emerge from a criminal case.
In April 2013, the Dodsons sued MWAA. As their legal team investigated the squadron of 50-year-old mobile lounges at Dulles, they found what their experts thought were serious safety flaws, as well as confusion over the rules about the Dulles taxiways and the lack of a risk management system at the airport — all of which they thought contributed to the accident. MWAA responded that the lounges were safe and that safety was paramount, and that Dodson simply had driven into the lounge’s path and failed to wear his seat belt.
Jared Dodson, a ramp agent for Southwest Airlines, was killed in January 2012 when his baggage tug was run over by a mobile lounge at Dulles International Airport. (Courtesy of Dodson family)
On the eve of trial last month, MWAA paid a $2 million wrongful-death settlement to the Dodsons. The family members still think the lounges are unsafe and recently spoke for the first time about the problems they and their experts found.
Officials at Dulles disagree and say the lounges have had an extremely small number of accidents over the past 10 years during millions of runs between the main terminal, Concourse D and other international arrivals. MWAA said the decision to pay the Dodsons $2 million was made by its insurance company and is not an admission that Smith or Dulles was at fault.
“There’s a reason they don’t use mobile lounges anywhere else,” said J.C. Dodson, a retired Air Force pilot and senior risk adviser at BAE Systems. “At the end of the day, the factors that drove the causation of this accident have not changed, and there doesn’t seem to be any willingness by the airport’s management to look into it and see what should be changed.” Among the problems the Dodsons and their attorney, John D. McGavin, found were that the windshield wipers on the sides of the small, box-shaped cabins of the lounge drivers were removed years ago, and lights on the speedometers have been turned off because of glare; that vehicle drivers at Dulles are unclear about speed limits and rights of way; and that visibility of vehicles at Dulles in the dark is sometimes poor.
The Dodsons’ investigation found that no lounge driver has been given a traffic ticket while driving at Dulles and that the MWAA police are unclear on the rules governing vehicles around the terminal. The MWAA police investigation said that “human error” caused the fatal crash and that Smith was to blame because he failed to notice Dodson and drove into his path.
Christopher U. Browne, the airport manager at Dulles, said the police findings were preliminary and based on incorrect standards. He said the lounges “always have the right of way, regardless of circumstances, except with aircraft or emergency vehicles with lights flashing. . . . Other vehicles must provide adequate distance when operating around mobile lounges.” He added that in the past 10 years involving more than 4.5 million trips by the lounges, Dodson was the only fatality.
Despite the police finding that the lounge driver was at fault, Browne said the police report was only part of the investigation that includes the Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. “There was no infraction,” Browne said. “The outcome was certainly tragic. But there was no procedure that he was not following.” Browne said he has promoted Smith within the lounge drivers’ unit. “I think it would be an injustice to penalize him for an incident in which he had no actual blame.”
Smith did not return messages seeking comment. Records show he told MWAA police immediately after the accident that he saw Dodson’s tug initially but didn’t see him once both vehicles were on the taxiway. But in his lawsuit deposition, Smith said he never saw Dodson at any point.
Loudoun Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman said his office did not file charges because there was not a clear criminal liability. “Obviously, it’s not your typical accident, dealing with commercial transportation in that type of facility,” Plowman said. Charging a criminal driving violation such as reckless driving on private property is difficult, Plowman said, and “the normal application of the law doesn’t apply. Whether the driver was reckless or negligent is entirely unclear, leaving everyone to their civil remedies.”
In an accident reconstruction report for the Dodsons, Robert L. Miller of CED Technologies wrote, “This right-of-way does not give mobile lounge operators the right to simply run over vehicles that had entered and are crossing through the intersection before a mobile lounge enters the same intersection.”
James A. Higgins, a professor of aerospace science at the University of North Dakota, analyzed the accident for the Dodsons and said it was indicative of a lack of safety enforcement at Dulles.
Higgins criticized the MWAA investigation — Smith was not tested for alcohol, his cellphone was not seized and the transmission tapes with the tower were not collected — and said it showed “a fundamental lack of investigatory competence.”
But Higgins said a larger problem was that Dulles does not have a safety management system in place to analyze risk at the airport and reduce it before an accident occurs. He said airlines installed such risk analysis systems years ago and have greatly reduced accidents, but the Federal Aviation Administration has not required airports to do the same thing.
“MWAA needs to realize that Jared Dodson, someone they were charged to protect, lost his life in a very preventable accident,” Higgins wrote in an analysis of the incident.
Dulles is particularly complicated because of its use of the mobile lounges, Higgins said. “The lack of any proactive or predictive safety assurance program” at Dulles, he said, “caused, and is still causing, the employees and traveling public to be placed at risk from undiscovered safety hazards.”
Browne responded that the lounges are safe and said: “To suggest that we are inherently unsafe because we don’t have a safety management system is grossly inaccurate. We have all the elements to populate a [safety management system]. Safety and security are primary duties, and I am prepared to document how we are operating safely and securely in a multitude of ways.”
Browne said that windshield wipers had been removed from the side windows of the lounge drivers’ cabin many years ago but that no accidents had been attributed to their removal. He said that after the Dodson accident, strobe lights were placed on the side of the mobile lounges to make them more visible, and the crossing where Dodson was killed no longer is used by mobile lounges.
As the trial approached in November, MWAA’s lawyers hired their own experts and argued that Dodson’s “contributory negligence” — that he failed to yield the right of way and was not wearing his seat belt — caused the accident.
But in October, MWAA elected not to put the case in front of a Loudoun jury and settled with the Dodsons, court records show.
MWAA spokesman Christopher Paolino said settling lawsuits involves weighing the costs of trial and the risk of an unfavorable outcome, and “it was largely the Airports Authority’s insurance carrier that did this weighing, and it reached the business decision to settle,” with no fault assigned to either side.
“The emotional toll on us is one thing,” said J.C. Dodson, “but there’s been a lot of wear and tear on [Jared Dodson’s co-workers] at Southwest. There just hasn’t been an acknowledgment that they’re going to do it different at MWAA. Nothing they’ve communicated to us would prevent this particular accident.”