Uber driver Rick Davis spends his nights cruising around Dulles International Airport in his 2012 Toyota Camry, waiting for travelers arriving on late flights. To avoid any conflicts on airport property, he often waits along nearby Route 28. On a good night, he picks up maybe three passengers.
Davis is one of thousands of drivers in the Washington region working for Uber, the app-based ride service that has become a popular alternative to the traditional taxi.
Many of these drivers have made their home base near area airports where they have found that — as in most major U.S. airports — regulations ban them from picking up passengers, so they risk citations and fines.
But that could change soon. Commercial airports across the United States, including the Washington region’s three major airports, are rethinking how they handle the app-based services.
The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which manages Reagan National Airport and Dulles, is considering amending its ground transportation policy to allow Uber, Lyft and similar services access to airport property at National and Dulles. The companies would pay a one-time fee for a special permit and drivers would pay access fees similar to those paid by taxi drivers — which have become an important source of revenue for the airports. MWAA would add designated waiting areas for the taxi alternatives to allow drivers to arrange trips with passengers while on airport property.
“Airports are taking these steps because their customers expect that,” Zuhairah Washington, who oversees Uber’s operations in the D.C. area, told MWAA officials at a public hearing last week. “When they land, they will be able to open the Uber app and request transportation in the same way they can in most parts of the United States.”
Currently, only a handful of major U.S. airports allow drivers of UberX — Uber’s low-cost service — to pick up passengers, according to the Airport Ground Transportation Association. The more expensive UberBlack car services, which are licensed, are generally not affected by the restrictions.
As many as 20 airports nationwide are rethinking their regulations, pressured by a need to establish some control over the new driver-for-hire services, and keep travelers happy by offering more choices, said the association’s executive director, Ray Mundy.
“We are in a period of transition,” said Mundy, who projects that the services will be widely available at airports within two years. “It is going to be airport by airport making decisions.”
But getting to a comfortable place in which traditional and alternative taxis can coexist could be a bumpy ride. Airports typically want control over commercial drivers on their property; many require comprehensive background checks to ensure that drivers have no criminal records or are not on terrorism watch lists, experts say. Airports, which generally are self-sustaining, also want to make sure commercial drivers are well-insured to protect themselves against liability in the event of an accident on airport property.
There are many regulations governing the services and different degrees of enforcement depending on the airport — just as states and local governments have taken vastly different approaches to regulating them.
In Orange County, Calif., John Wayne Airport recently championed permitting app-based ride services to operate alongside taxis. As part of the deal, the companies pay the airport $2.25 per pickup. In Uber’s hometown, San Francisco International Airport also allows ride-hailing operations. And in Los Angeles, Mayor Eric Garcetti (D) recently pledged to give Uber and Lyft greater access to passengers at L.A. International Airport starting this summer.
But Uber has found resistance in South Florida, where it entered the market last summer. Police have been citing drivers for picking up passengers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport without proper permits. Just this month, the Broward County Commission authorized fines up to $1,000 for drivers violating county laws. Aviation officials have said they are troubled by reports that cabbies are losing 180 fares a day to Uber and Lyft.
Earlier this year the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that Broward County had collected $35,000 in fines from the ride-hailing services’ drivers.
Those drivers, meanwhile, say they are always on the lookout, avoiding areas with greater police presence. In some cases, drivers remove their Uber decal or the Lyft pink mustache to avoid drawing attention and pretend they are picking up relatives or friends.
In the Washington region, where UberX launched less than two years ago, drivers say airport enforcement has been less aggressive. Neither drivers nor officials at Dulles, National and Baltimore-Washington International Marshall Airport had information on any recent citations issued to taxi-alternative drivers.
MWAA’s proposal would require the app-based ride companies to pay a $5,000 one-time fee for a special permit and drivers would pay a $5 access fee for each pickup and drop-off.
The Maryland Aviation Administration, which oversees BWI, is studying practices at other airports to develop a “comprehensive review” of its ground transportation service, and plans to update regulations in coming months, officials said.
Maryland law requires transportation operators doing business at BWI — the region’s busiest airport with 22.3 million passengers last year— to have a courtesy or commercial permit issued by the airport, but it does not specifically address services such Uber and Lyft, whose drivers use their personal vehicles and are generally cheaper than taxis.
BWI spokesman Jonathan Dean said it is unclear what the new regulations will entail, but he said, “we want to ensure both efficient access and a high level of service for our travelers.”
Newly adopted regulations in the District, Virginia and Maryland that legalize the services are driving the changes at the airports. Donald E. Griffin Jr., a general business specialist at MWAA, said the proposals also are a response to greater demand for ground transportation and the airports’ desire to provide equitable access to all transportation options desired by passengers, while also maintaining efficient operations.
Although the ride companies support the regulatory changes, they disagree with some parts of the proposal. For example, they contend that the $5 per-trip access fee is too high, and that it ranks among the priciest in the country. Airports in Denver, Houston and San Francisco also charge access fees ranging from $2.15 to $3.85.
Drivers contend that the fee will inflate trip costs, which ultimately will be passed on to customers.
And the taxi industry continues to protest the new services, saying they have an unfair advantage because they are not subject to the same level of licensing and regulation. New regulations at area airports — a place where taxis remain a widely used transportation option — would put them at an even greater disadvantage, they say.
Traditional cabs pay a $3-per-fare fee to operate at National, unless it’s a prearranged trip, and they must wait in line to be dispatched. Uber and Lyft drivers simply pull up to the curb to collect passengers.
“They are popular with a certain segment of the population and I respect that,” said John Massoud, vice president of Arlington Blue Top Cabs, which has 171 drivers in Arlington and operates a third of the Washington Flyer cabs at Dulles. “But they want no access fees, no rules, no regulations. They want to do whatever they want.”
Others think there is room for both and that customers benefit in the end.
“We believe that we can coexist with taxis and public transit, and we believe that we are meeting a consumer demand,” said Michael Masserman, director of international government relations at Lyft.
With permits in cities including Nashville, Portland and Austin, Masserman said there is still much work ahead for the companies. They must, for example, convince regulators that they have a thorough process for vetting drivers and that their insurance coverage is adequate.
“Consumers want to have different options when they arrive at the airport,” Masserman said. “It is on airports to figure out how to provide those services.”