I pass by the Capital Hilton Hotel just about every day, so I'm well acquainted with the situation that jumped up and snared Elsa Sagasti of Arlington. She refers to it as the competition between cabs and buses for passengers going to Dulles Airport. It reminds me more of a rug bazaar.
Walk down the sidewalk on the north side of the 1500 block of K Street NW., any day, at just about any hour, and the cabbies will start chanting.
"Dulles?" "Airport, mister?" "Cab, sir?"
All this while the bus is sitting there, its engine idling and its front-window sign reading "DULLES," big as life.
Nothing saves you from the cabbies' hard sell, not even one of those T-shirts that reads "I'm Not a Tourist; I Live Here." You would think the cabbies would have learned by now that most people don't want to pay $25 to go to Dulles in a cab when they can pay $5 to go in a bus. But that snippet of mathematics doesn't keep the cabbies from trying -- to put it mildly.
Or lying, evidently. That's the only conclusion I can draw from Elsa Sagasti's story. It took place on Monday, July 5, as she began a trip to Europe.
Elsa arrived at the Hilton at 5:40 p.m., in plenty of time to make her scheduled 6 p.m. bus to Dulles. The bus was sitting near the K Street entrance to the hotel. No driver was visible. Elsa plunked her suitcase on the sidewalk and started to wait.
At 5:52, Elsa writes, "Bus engine starts (driver has been inside closed bus). Takes off toward 16th Street. I run after it, waving and shouting, to no avail. Wait, assuming it will return."
But the rug merchants knew a potential "mark" when they saw one.
"5:55 p.m. Cab drivers approach me and say, 'If airport bus does not have enough passengers, he does not make the run. If you get three more passengers, one of us will take you for the same fare.'"
As it happened, there were no other passengers around. And the clock was ticking. Elsa waited until 6:10, but then, rather than forfeit a plane ticket worth hundreds of dollars, she hopped in a cab and went to Dulles. The tab: $25.
Where did the bus go? The bus company can't say. The driver might have gone for a cup of coffee, or to make a phone call, officials say, although he should have gotten back to the K Street waiting ramp by 6, the appointed departure time.
Is there any truth to the "report" the cabbies gave Elsa? None whatsoever, said John Sawyer, manager of the bus service, from his office at National Airport. The bus is supposed to leave the Capital Hilton on the hour, as scheduled, every day, passengers or not, and it usually does, Sawyer said.
Cabbies "steal us blind," Sawyer complained. "I've seen instances of two people being kept in a cab. The bus leaves and then they (the cabbies) can't find any more passengers to make the run (to Dulles), so they put out those passengers."
The long and the short of it? "Cab drivers lie," Sawyer said.
I can't find the bus company totally blameless in the Sagasti Saga. July 5 was a legal holiday, after all, and Elsa admits that no other customers were around. Maybe the bussie decided that, if he was ever going to get home an hour ahead of schedule, this was the day to choose.
And if he ever did come back to the K Street ramp, there's no getting around the fact that he was at least 10 minutes late. When you're trying to catch a plane, that can be fatal.
But the finger still points squarely at the rug merchants disguised as taxi drivers. Beware, fellas. Next time you try to "explain" the bus company's occupancy policies to someone standing on the sidewalk, don't be surprised if you end up doing most of your explaining to the hack inspector.