CHARLOTTE, N.C. At the Sleep Inn in Charlotte’s University City area, guests were crying, cursing and running down the hall with pants in hand on Friday, trying desperately to get to the airport after the Democratic National Convention.
Shuttles were extremely late, on a day when everyone knew they had to allow extra time at the airport, and just getting through to a cab company took half an hour, said Karina Furman, who works the front desk. Finally, she and other employees started using their own vehicles to take frantic guests to the airport.
“No pay, no nothing – we were just doing it out of being kind to people,” Furman said. “It was really hectic.”
At Spring Hill Suites in Concord, airport transportation went well, but guests complained that it took them two to four hours to get back from convention activities in uptown Charlotte on shuttle buses, said assistant general manager Susan Grammas.
“The whole transportation thing, Charlotte needs to be looking at that if they ever have an event this big again,” Grammas said. “They really have to work on that if they want to be a big city.”
Many would agree: In a convention that mostly sailed smoothly, ground transportation was a bumpy road.
Charlotte’s light rail and bus system isn’t anything like the subway networks in larger cities. Shuttle buses hired to move participants between the uptown convention and hotels in the outlying areas didn’t always provide the convenience people wanted, and security blockades made it difficult for taxis to connect with riders. People in wheelchairs had an especially difficult time finding a ride.
At Charlotte Douglas International Airport, a record crowd of about 29,500 departing fliers went through TSA screening on Friday. That topped the previous high, 26,100 fliers on July 19, by more than 3,000.
But waits averaged only about 15 minutes at ticket counters and checkpoints, airport officials said. The airport set up a fifth checkpoint, and USAirways brought in staff from other airports to help.
“It went remarkably well,” said USAirways spokesman Davien Anderson, who was at the airport Friday. “Everyone that came through the airport was in such a great mood.”
Getting around Charlotte
Albeno Maywal, who owns Professional Cabs of Charlotte and All Show Limousine, said DNC organizers should have done more to give visitors easy access to local cabs, such as creating a cab line near the arena.
The DNC committee awarded a $3 million-plus contract to three bus companies – Charlotte Destination Group, Seattle-based Event Transportation Associates Inc. and Birmingham, Ala.-based Vectour Group LLC – to create a shuttle bus system to transport delegates, VIPs and convention guests. Organizers said the shuttles would have well-trained drivers and reduce congestion.
But Maywal said the system not only cut into his potential for business, but shortchanged local clubs and restaurants. Because it was hard to catch a taxi, which could have taken them around the city, many delegates just got on buses that took them back to hotels in outlying areas, he said.
“It wasn’t the windfall that I was expecting to come to Charlotte,” he said. “Don’t bring in anybody from out of town. We are the locals. We pay taxes.”
But Danny Khan, manager of Diamond Cab, said his company saw about four times its normal business. He said his drivers did have a hard time getting close in, and customers sometimes had to walk a few blocks to rendezvous.
But he said Diamond got advance online bookings from all over the region, including some convention-goers staying in a Mooresville hotel who pre-booked a cab to take them to the convention and airport. He said his company spread the word through Google advertising, Twitter and Facebook.
“It was a really good thing for business,” he said.
Tough for disabled travelers
Edmond Turner, a Virginia delegate attending his first convention, uses a motorized wheelchair.
“I think it’s a beautiful city,” Turner said, but one that needs more wheelchair-accessible transportation. His assistant, Ronald Parker, agreed: “We have had our challenges with transportation. If I’m ever in this city again, hopefully it will be better.”
Two disabled Mississippi delegates faced so many delays and struggles finding shuttles that could handle wheelchairs that a state party official blasted convention organizers. Rickey Cole, executive director of the Mississippi Democratic Party, said he was “profoundly disappointed with this DNCC and its willingness to provide (Americans with Disabilities Act) transportation.”
Grammas, whose hotel hosted the New Mexico delegation, said she also watched delegates struggle to get a shuttle that could take wheelchairs.
The convention had about 300 delegates with disabilities or mobility problems. Shortly before the convention opened, the Charlotte Area Transit System was engaged in a dispute with private bus companies over who could provide enough buses with wheelchair ramps. CATS sought a waiver from the federal law that prohibits public transit systems from competing with private business for charters. CATS officials argued the private companies couldn’t meet the need, while the American Bus Association contended the DNCC could find private companies with buses to serve the disabled.
Less than a week before the convention began, the Federal Transit Administration cleared CATS to provide extra buses with disability access.
“It was a priority of the DNCC to provide a fully accessible shuttle system, and to ensure all persons with disabilities had access to buses that possess either low floor/kneeling capabilities or wheelchair lifts,” DNCC spokeswoman Joanne Peters said Saturday. “These buses were both private motor coach buses and CATS buses. With a transportation system this large, certain issues arose, and we did our best to work with our state delegations to resolve any problems. We apologize for any inconvenience.”
At Sleep Inn on North Tryon Street, shuttles taking Louisiana delegates to and from Monday’s Labor Day street festival ran about 90 minutes late, Furman said. Things got better the next three days, she said, but transportation fell apart on Friday.
Arrivals had been spread over several days, but almost everyone booked their departure flights for Friday. When weather forced cancellation of Thursday night’s big open-air acceptance speech, USAirways offered Friday’s departing fliers the chance to move their flights to Thursday at no extra charge. About 600 people did so, Anderson said.
But that left thousands flying out on Friday, with President Obama’s midmorning departure blocking roads and air traffic.
Furman said two shuttle buses arrived at Sleep Inn before 7 a.m., and a city bus came just after 10 a.m. Then, for a long stretch there was nothing, she said. As the crowd and the anxiety level grew, buses passed the hotel without stopping. A DNC volunteer stationed at the hotel didn’t know what was happening, Furman said.
“One guy was cursing at the transportation volunteer,” she said. “I had to tell him, ‘We can’t have this here.’ ”
Furman said she spent 30 minutes trying to get through to a local cab company, only to be told a cab would arrive “whatever time he gets there – we’re extremely busy.”
Despite such tales, Anderson said USAirways did not see a large number of missed flights. He speculated that was because the airline had been emphatic in urging passengers to arrive early.
Furman said the experience was no fun at the time. But Saturday, as things settled back to normal, she chuckled at the memory of people trying to pull on pants while dashing for shuttles. And she said despite a few signs of frayed nerves on Friday, the Louisiana crew had been a delight.
“We partied every night with them,” she said.
Staff writers Pam Kelley and Brittany Penland contributed.