Business

Cab drivers struggle as gas prices rise, trips fall

Ghirmay Araya parked his taxi across from Wachovia's uptown headquarters one recent afternoon in hopes of catching a random airport fare.

He can't afford to cruise the streets for passengers because gas is too expensive.

It was two hours past lunchtime, and the 35-year-old had collected only $25 – and burned half of it on gas.

With $4 a gallon gas and cabbies reporting fewer passengers, Charlotte's largest taxi companies are asking the city for a rate increase. The last hike was in November 2005, when a gallon of regular in Charlotte was little more than $2.

Some cab drivers complain the city allows too many taxis on the road, which has ramped up competition for a shrinking pool of fares.

“We used to take uptown businessmen, bankers, to the airport. Now we don't see those people,” said Araya, who moved here about three years ago from Eritrea, in northeast Africa.

According to recent reports, fewer people are traveling for business or pleasure. US Airways, which runs 80 percent of its flights out of Charlotte, reported a drop in passengers for June. That means Charlotte cabbies are getting fewer lucrative trips to and from the airport.

A citizen board that advises the City Council about taxi fares agreed this month to research whether local rates should be increased. The council allows a $1 gas surcharge for metered fares, but cab companies and drivers say it's not enough.

The board will spend two months surveying hotel managers and other businesses whose customers rely on taxis, said Burhan Al-Shaikh, manager of the vehicle-for-hire section of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which enforces taxi regulations.

Al-Shaikh said the feeling among businesses was against increasing rates the past two years. Some worried a hike will hurt tourism and offend business travelers.

Mohamed Moustafa, owner of Universal Taxi Cab, formally requested the rate increase, and the advisory board voted unanimously this month to consider it.

With about 70 taxis, Moustafa runs one of the area's largest company-owned fleets. He'd like to see a 50 percent rate increase, which would push a ride to the airport from uptown to $30 from $20. The per-mile rate for metered fares would increase to $3 from $2.

That would bring Charlotte more in line with other large cities, he said.

Moustafa charges his drivers $70 a day to rent one of his taxis. The drivers also pay for gas and keep whatever fares they collect. Lately, there's not much left for them to take home. Moustafa said his best drivers are quitting because “no one wants to work for free.”

Universal last year had about $600,000 in revenue, down from $1.2 million eight years ago, he said. Moustafa blames the decline on fewer drivers renting cars.

Javed Kashmir, who owns King and Royal cab companies, said helping drivers who can't meet their expenses has eaten into his profits. He supports a rate increase but worries about its impact on business.

“We're going to lose customers,” he said. “But gas is killing everyone.”

Ahmed Katta, a 50-year-old driver who moved here from Sierra Leone in West Africa 10 years ago, said he makes 50 percent to 70 percent less than he did in 2005. And it's not just gas prices, he said. All expenses for drivers have increased: Insurance was $1,000 five years ago, now it's $3,000, he said.

Public transportation, – the new light-rail line, city buses and the free Gold Rush shuttle that runs through uptown – all have stolen some of his customers, he said.

“The city is contributing to kill our business,” he said one day while waiting for fares at an uptown taxi stand. “I can sit in that car for one hour and not a single voice will come over my radio.”

Wassi Ganiyou, a 35-year-old from Togo, West Africa, said he's not making enough as a taxi driver but doesn't want to go back to driving a delivery truck. He supports a rate increase because, he believes, it would mostly affect out-of-town travelers.

Cab driver Kenneth Oli said he could make $100 on a busy day three years ago. Now, it's closer to half. He used to pay $50 in gas to generate $200 in fares. Now it's double the cost and half the business.

On Friday, Oli and three colleagues had been working since 6 a.m. None had fares by 10:30 a.m. The Nigerian immigrant, who holds a political science degree, has lived in the city for 18 years.

“I'm looking for another job, but I'm an old man now,” said Oli, who keeps his age a secret. “Making $200 in fares is very impossible now. It's not a crime to be a cab driver, but we suffer.”

Ghirmay Araya parked his taxi across from Wachovia's uptown headquarters one recent afternoon in hopes of catching a random airport fare.

He can't afford to cruise the streets for passengers because gas is too expensive.

It was two hours past lunchtime, and the 35-year-old had collected only $25 – and burned half of it on gas.

With $4 a gallon gas and cabbies reporting fewer passengers, Charlotte's largest taxi companies are asking the city for a rate increase. The last hike was in November 2005, when a gallon of regular in Charlotte was little more than $2.

Some cab drivers complain the city allows too many taxis on the road, which has ramped up competition for a shrinking pool of fares.

“We used to take uptown businessmen, bankers, to the airport. Now we don't see those people,” said Araya, who moved here about three years ago from Eritrea, in northeast Africa.

According to recent reports, fewer people are traveling for business or pleasure. US Airways, which runs 80 percent of its flights out of Charlotte, reported a drop in passengers for June. That means Charlotte cabbies are getting fewer lucrative trips to and from the airport.

A citizen board that advises the City Council about taxi fares agreed this month to research whether local rates should be increased. The council allows a $1 gas surcharge for metered fares, but cab companies and drivers say it's not enough.

The board will spend two months surveying hotel managers and other businesses whose customers rely on taxis, said Burhan Al-Shaikh, manager of the vehicle-for-hire section of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, which enforces taxi regulations.

Al-Shaikh said the feeling among businesses was against increasing rates the past two years. Some worried a hike will hurt tourism and offend business travelers.

Mohamed Moustafa, owner of Universal Taxi Cab, formally requested the rate increase, and the advisory board voted unanimously this month to consider it.

With about 70 taxis, Moustafa runs one of the area's largest company-owned fleets. He'd like to see a 50 percent rate increase, which would push a ride to the airport from uptown to $30 from $20. The per-mile rate for metered fares would increase to $3 from $2.

That would bring Charlotte more in line with other large cities, he said.

Moustafa charges his drivers $70 a day to rent one of his taxis. The drivers also pay for gas and keep whatever fares they collect. Lately, there's not much left for them to take home. Moustafa said his best drivers are quitting because “no one wants to work for free.”

Universal last year had about $600,000 in revenue, down from $1.2 million eight years ago, he said. Moustafa blames the decline on fewer drivers renting cars.

Javed Kashmir, who owns King and Royal cab companies, said helping drivers who can't meet their expenses has eaten into his profits. He supports a rate increase but worries about its impact on business.

“We're going to lose customers,” he said. “But gas is killing everyone.”

Ahmed Katta, a 50-year-old driver who moved here from Sierra Leone in West Africa 10 years ago, said he makes 50 percent to 70 percent less than he did in 2005. And it's not just gas prices, he said. All expenses for drivers have increased: Insurance was $1,000 five years ago, now it's $3,000, he said.

Public transportation, – the new light-rail line, city buses and the free Gold Rush shuttle that runs through uptown – all have stolen some of his customers, he said.

“The city is contributing to kill our business,” he said one day while waiting for fares at an uptown taxi stand. “I can sit in that car for one hour and not a single voice will come over my radio.”

Wassi Ganiyou, a 35-year-old from Togo, West Africa, said he's not making enough as a taxi driver but doesn't want to go back to driving a delivery truck. He supports a rate increase because, he believes, it would mostly affect out-of-town travelers.

Cab driver Kenneth Oli said he could make $100 on a busy day three years ago. Now, it's closer to half. He used to pay $50 in gas to generate $200 in fares. Now it's double the cost and half the business.

On Friday, Oli and three colleagues had been working since 6 a.m. None had fares by 10:30 a.m. The Nigerian immigrant, who holds a political science degree, has lived in the city for 18 years.

“I'm looking for another job, but I'm an old man now,” said Oli, who keeps his age a secret. “Making $200 in fares is very impossible now. It's not a crime to be a cab driver, but we suffer.”

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