A Peek Under The Hood Of Charlotte's Taxi Industry
First of two reports There's a fierce debate over laws that govern Charlotte's taxi industry and other passenger vehicle services. The city wants to limit the number of cab companies that serve the airport. There's now a lawsuit over that process. But the debate goes beyond the airport proposal. It's exposed a system in which the players have little common ground aside from the pavement beneath their tires. The first contact most people have with taxis in Charlotte is at the airport: Passengers drag their luggage to the curb and climb into the first cab in a line of multicolored options - yellow, green, blue, burgundy. It's a seemingly random and disjointed welcome. Uptown is the usual destination with a standard $25 fare set by the city. Fifteen minutes later, the passenger climbs out and the driver makes a beeline back to the airport. He doesn't even bother circling the block to see if someone else might be looking for a ride. He'd rather go back to the airport where the numbers are more in his favor. Only 144 taxi drivers have permits to wait at the airport, compared to the 400 or so who jostle for business out on the street. The airport cabbies have a small parking lot near the terminal where they chat on cell phones, play backgammon or watch TV in a dingy lounge while they wait for the dispatcher to wave them on to the baggage curb. "Most of the time, we're sitting," says Charlotte Checker Cab driver Henry Bendu. "We have like an average of eight trips per day." And that's a 14-hour day. To an outsider this lot full of loitering cabs looks inefficient -and even a bit lazy. But the drivers have no motivation to leave the parking lot because at least here they're virtually guaranteed a $25 fare. Out on the street, you just never know, says Bendu. "If you work on the streets it's like you do more and you get less for the hard work you put on in, because of the competition," says Bendu. Losing an airport permit is a blow to a taxi driver's earning power and quality of life. But that's exactly what will happen to many of them if city officials follow through with a plan to limit airport permits to just three cab companies. Drivers like Bendu will be sent back to the street where Nations Cab driver Kenneth Oli says the work is much more stressful. "We cruise around, people crossing the street, avoiding cars and you can't park everywhere - it's very hectic," says Oli. As often as he can, Oli parks at a meter in front of Bank of America headquarters. The city has designated a few dozen spots around Uptown for taxis to wait. Oli - and just about every street driver - would be thrilled to score one of the coveted airport permits from their companies. The fares are bigger. The passengers are less likely to rob you. And there's less of a chance your work night will be derailed by drunken vomit. When that happens, Oli has to stop driving for the night. He goes to the car wash and then home, where he leaves the doors of the car open to let it dry. "And you get no more money that night," says Oli. It's not like Oli can go back to the Nations Cab lot and trade cars. He - like many Charlotte taxi drivers - owns his vehicle and pays his own insurance. Drivers keep their fares, but have to pay weekly franchise fees to the cab company under whose name they drive. Cabbies say they'd make better money if they were allowed to park in front of hotels, but that's limo turf. Walk around the corner to the Marriott City Center and you'll see five black town cars lined up waiting for passengers. Unlike taxis - whose rates are set by the city - "black cars" and limos can charge whatever they want. Technically, they can only give rides that are "pre-arranged," but most of the big hotels in town have exclusive contracts to let black cars park at their doors and take first dibs on guests. Here's how they handle the "pre-arrangement" rule: when a hotel guest needs a ride to the airport, a staffer quickly fills out a reservation form and points the guest to a town car parked outside. If the guest insists on a taxi, the hotel will call one, but Marriott City Center General Manager Jim Diehl says limo companies are a better match for the hotel's image: "We feel that that is a much higher level of service," says Diehl. "The cars are cleaner. They're better maintained. The drivers are dressed better." City officials would like every cab and limo in Charlotte to meet a higher standard. Tuesday on Morning Edition, WFAE will report on those changes - and who's likely to pay the highest price.