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A home for Uber, Lyft at CLT?

Taxicabs line up at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Wednesday, June 17, 2015. The airport has deciding to continue, for another year, a deal in which there are only three taxi cab companies at the airport.
Taxicabs line up at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Wednesday, June 17, 2015. The airport has deciding to continue, for another year, a deal in which there are only three taxi cab companies at the airport. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte plans to continue limiting the number of traditional taxi companies allowed to pick up passengers at Charlotte Douglas Airport, but the airport appears ready to recognize companies such as Uber and Lyft with a designated pickup point.

Four years ago, the City Council voted to limit the number of taxi companies permitted at the airport from 12 to three. The rationale was that having fewer companies would improve customer service.

Airport staff recently decided to keep the status quo for another year by only allowing three taxi companies to pick up passengers for on-demand service.

That is a controversial decision. Cab companies without airport permits have said they have lost money, and some have closed.

While the airport will continue to exert control over the traditional cab business, Interim Aviation Director Brent Cagle said the airport may create a designated place to pick up passengers, along with signs inside the airport to direct passengers to what are known as “transportation network companies.”

The airport may follow the lead of Nashville, Tenn., which became one of the first large U.S. airports to allow ride-booking services such as Uber and Lyft to operate in exchange for permits and fees paid to the airport.

Cagle said he wants to create a parking lot for taxis, limousines, van shuttles and Uber and Lyft. “They can park remotely and then dispatch from there,” he said.

Cagle said he’s not sure what kind of fees the airport might try to levy on Uber and Lyft. He said there could be a fee paid to the airport for each trip as well as a “specific facility use” fee for a designated parking and pickup area.

“We continue to be in contact with them,” Cagle said. “We don’t want this to be an adversarial relationship.”

Contracts extended

The question of who can pick up passengers at the airport has been controversial since the City Council’s 2011 decision to limit taxi companies that can operate at the airport.

Losing taxi companies protested vigorously and claimed the city’s selection process was tainted. When former Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested on federal corruption charges in March 2014, the taxi companies charged that Cannon had unduly influenced the selection process.

Last summer, City Manager Ron Carlee and Cagle said they would issue a new request for proposals for the taxi contract, to ensure the process was fair.

But the airport decided recently to extend the contract for the existing three cab companies by another year. The fifth and final year of the original contract will start in July.

Cagle said the airport is still studying how to best manage all ground transportation companies. A consultant, Taxi Research Partners, hasn’t yet issued recommendations, he said.

“We need to give the consultant time to finish their work,” Cagle said.

Crown Cab, City Cab and Yellow Cab have permits to pick up at Charlotte Douglas.

The City Council doesn’t have to vote on the contract extension. Airport staff can exercise the last option year of the original contract, which went into effect in 2012.

Concerns

Mayur Khandelwal of Crown Cab is pleased the airport extended his contract for another year. He said his drivers had invested in new cars to meet the airport’s requirements for newer, nicer vehicles, and this will allow them to recoup that investment.

“Drivers had to get a replacement car without knowing there would be a fourth or fifth year,” he said.

Crown has benefited from the reduction of traditional taxi companies. But the company – like all other taxi companies – is concerned about the airport welcoming Uber and Lyft. Traditional cab companies argue that Uber and Lyft should face the same regulations that they do.

“We don’t like it,” he said. “But we’re not surprised.”

Chelsea Wilson, a communications manager for Lyft, said the company supports the regulation put in place by Nashville that has been followed by airports in Denver, San Francisco and Austin, Texas.

“We’re not opposed to being regulated by the airport,” Wilson said. “The important thing for us is that (the airports) understand that this is a different model. They shouldn’t apply a one-size-fits-all (regulation).”

Change made for customer service

Former Aviation Director Jerry Orr originally wanted only one taxi company permitted to pick up passengers at the airport. He said it would raise standards and make it easier to monitor customer complaints. The airport also said there were too many cab companies operatingat the airport, making it difficult for drivers to make money.

City Council members asked that more companies be allowed, and the final number was increased to three.

Council member Kenny Smith has said the airport can continue its current practice of requiring cabs to have high standards, including credit card machines and newer cars. But he has said the airport could allow more companies, so long as they meet the airport’s minimum standards.

He has said if a taxi driver chooses to wait at the airport for an extended period of time, then that’s an economic decision they are free to make.

Cagle said he’s open in 2016 to increasing the number of cab companies that can operate at the airport. But he wants some limit on the number of cars that have permits to pick up passengers.

“We aren’t as interested in the number of companies as the number of permits or cars,” he said. “The number is important because at some point we need to ensure the drivers can make an adequate wage. The problem with an open curb is that it dilutes the market. And it has a negative impact on the ability to regulate the companies.”

But since the airport reduced the number of cabs companies at the airport, a handful of companies that didn’t receive permits have gone out of business.

Harrison: 704-358-5160

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