Visitors to Kansas City have shared some of their experiences about airport taxis with Aviation Director Mark VanLoh.
Some of the tales are not pleasant - dirty and rickety cabs, drivers getting lost and overcharging, and cab companies refusing credit cards.
VanLoh thinks it's time for a change. On Wednesday, he proposed letting private business oversee the more than 400 taxis that line up for fares at Kansas City International Airport, as well as other for-hire limousines and sedans.
The changes, he told the Kansas City Council's Aviation Committee, would allow more efficient regulation of the airport's ground transportation service.
The airport's police department currently provides the regulatory oversight of taxis and other ground transportation services. The department also staffs the taxi dispatch center and limo lot where drivers wait for customers to call.
The plan calls for a private operator to pay the city to provide that oversight.
Once that private operator was hired, VanLoh said, the city would set standards the private operator would enforce.
The standards could include a driver dress code, driver training, and regulations governing the age and condition of vehicles.
"We want our customers to know that they can get into a cab and feel comfortable and safe," VanLoh said. "That's not to say that that is not happening now, but I do think we are a little behind compared to other airports."
More than a dozen passengers interviewed at KCI on Wednesday said they had never taken a taxi to or from the airport. Most said they used shuttles or rental cars. And some cabdrivers said the plan might hurt the small taxi companies.
But VanLoh said such measures are common in other parts of the country - including New York, Cleveland, San Francisco, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando.
VanLoh said regulating cabdrivers is important because they give many visitors their first impression of the Kansas City area.
The city pays more than $150,000 to staff the taxi dispatch center and limo lot, VanLoh said. That savings would be used to hire at least five more ground traffic control officers at the airport, he said.
The Aviation Department plans to submit requests for proposals to interested companies.
If the City Council approves the plan, VanLoh said, a company could be in place by March.
Some committee members said Wednesday that they were concerned that a private company, which probably would have its own fleet of vehicles, would monopolize the airport taxi service.
The airport is widely regarded by cabdrivers as one of the most lucrative fare opportunities in the area.
"Having standards is great, especially when you have some drivers who look like they haven't been to sleep," said Councilman Alvin Brooks. "But on the other hand, we should not put anyone out of business. A number of cabdrivers have already asked me about this proposal."
VanLoh said the successful bidder could decide whether to set standards for vehicles or base its decision to operate a vehicle on its maintenance record.
"Nothing is set in stone at this point," he said.
Bill George, chief executive officer of Kansas City Transportation Group, the area's largest cab operator, did not say whether his company would bid for the private contract. But he favors the plan.
"The system that the airport has is broken," he said. "I know a better job can be done."
A private operator could reduce the number of taxis at the airport, which would allow them to serve other destination areas of the city, such as downtown, the 18th and Vine District, and the Country Club Plaza, he said.
But Mohamed Ali, a taxi driver at the airport, said there is not enough activity in other areas of the city, and downtown hotels do not provide an area for smaller taxi companies to wait for customers.
Another driver, Tamirat Abera, agreed. "This (privatization) will only hurt the small cab owners," he said.
Abera said he has never heard any complaints.
"This system works," he said. "Drivers share rides, and it doesn't hurt anyone. This proposal does not make sense."
Those drivers, many of whom spend hours at the dispatch center to get one or two customers a day, said being stationed at a center away from the airport terminals is a disadvantage.
They complained that limo drivers, who are permitted to wait near the terminals, often lure customers away.
On Wednesday afternoon, as passengers got off a Midwest Airlines flight, one traveler began to phone for a taxi when a limo driver parked on the median outside the gate flagged him down. VanLoh said such soliciting is illegal and would be curbed once more traffic control officers were hired.
A cabdriver and a taxi company operator talk about proposed changes at the airport.
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