Ride-Booking Surges at ABIA
Aviation Department and Commission react to TNC invasion
It's been a rough couple of weeks for Uber. Vice President Emir Michael was caught suggesting oppo-slam campaigns against journalists critical of the company, while his firm spent much of November fending off accusations of personal data breaches, abuses of proprietary information, and lowering driver income while flooding the market for rides-for-hire. It's almost enough to make you grateful for taxicab regulation.
Nevertheless, Uber's Austin rollout proceeds. The Airport Advisory Commission has been busy trying to sort out how exactly to apply the concept of city regulations to transportation network companies like Uber and others, for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (where TNCs are currently prohibited from doing business). The latest iteration, presented two weeks ago at the Department of Aviation, calls for a hybrid concoction that combines city standards (e.g., a licensing requirement) with regulations already enforced for cabbies (required transponders, and the $1 per ride fee that comes with them, so the airport can track on-site activity). "Dynamic pricing" by TNCs would remain in effect, as would data sharing, and all other terms of the city's agreement with the companies. Violations would result in a class C misdemeanor and a fine – that Uber and competitor Lyft would likely pay without hesitation from company funds.
The issue now rests in the Department of Aviation's ability to get Uber and Lyft to play fair in negotiations and ultimately comply – no small task. The sentiment coming from the policymakers at the AAC meeting two weeks ago suggested that any attempt to enforce actual rules on these companies would be futile and disruptive.
"Today, Uber and Lyft are already operating at the airport," noted Patti Edwards, director of operations for the Department of Aviation. "To try to control and stop them from operating at the airport would be more manpower-intensive than to try to work with them to try to come up with something that provides a benefit not only to the people who visit Austin but to provide a revenue stream for the airport."
Indeed, we've seen what kind of alternatives TNCs will resort to if kept from doing business as they wish. Uber and Lyft have defied municipal regulations in San Francisco, while catering to Nashville because of the city's light regulation. Earlier this month, emails leaked between Uber and its Miami drivers detailing what to do to avoid getting caught by airport officials while servicing rides.
AAC secretary D'Ann Johnson doesn't see the TNCs' defiant tactics as an acceptable reason for legitimizing the status quo, and raises potential problems that may occur if these companies are allowed to work at the airport unchecked. "You have cab drivers who consistently work the airport in the summertime, when it's real slow," she said. "And not just during South by Southwest." Uber and Lyft drivers who choose to take advantage of Austin's abundant festival schedule would be cherry-picking airport service times, she said, and benefiting from what could fast become a very serious increase in surge pricing. Chances are as well that they'd discourage cab drivers that arriving passengers rely on during less high-demand hours.
In turn, for those who do arrive and immediately get hit with a hair-raising surge rate (and not a standard rate as required of cab drivers) their first impression of Austin will be that of increasingly high costs. "There are a lot of issues here involved with protecting [cab drivers] who work the airport during slow times, and protecting people who come into this airport, and need a ride to where they're going," Johnson added. "Just because the city did it [allowed TNC operation] doesn't mean the airport has to do it."
Edwards said she hopes to sit down to negotiate terms with the TNCs soon. Her concluding sentiment summed up the city and Aviation Department's predicament: "We only make rules that we can enforce."