Shuttles, Taxis Unite Against Orlando International Airport Kiosks

Nov. 22--After months of bickering over a free Disney airport shuttle, drivers of competing shuttles and luxury cars joined Disney-contracted Mears Transportation Group on Monday to fight proposed changes to how they all do business.

Orlando International Airport officials are considering an overhaul of how travelers find and meet up with transportation companies by banning the companies from the airport's baggage claim and installing an information kiosk instead.

That proposal drew broad opposition at an airport public hearing Monday from tourism officials and more than 100 drivers packing the airport authority's boardroom. The officials, from the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association, called the measure a bad move for tourism.

"We believe that passenger familiarity is important," said CVB President Bill Peeper, referring to a general standard across the United States that calls for passengers to meet up with transportation companies in baggage claim.

The changes stem from an examination of how ground transportation companies operate at Orlando International in the wake of protests and strikes provoked by Disney's Magical Express, a free shuttle between the airport and Walt Disney World Resort that began in May.

Many taxi, luxury car and smaller shuttle operators say the Disney shuttle operated by Mears has threatened their livelihoods. According to Disney estimates, the shuttle transports as many as 21,000 tourists every day.

Owen Fraser, who operates a smaller bus and shuttle service called Beeline Ground Transportation, said Magical Express may put him out of business.

"All of these people are here because of what the DME [Disney Magical Express] has created," Fraser said. "We're continuing to lose about $100,000 a month."

At the beginning of this month, the airport required Disney to remove its greeters from the third level where passengers exit the security checkpoint. Disney officials did not speak at the hearing.

The other transportation companies had complained that Disney's exclusive access to that area gave it an unfair business advantage as it was able to solicit passengers before they reached the other companies on the second level near baggage claim.

Paul Mears III, president of Mears Transportation Group, said moving companies off the second level is not the answer.

Travelers who book chauffeured limos or luxury cars are often decision makers who make the call over whether a large convention or other business comes to Orlando, Mears said.

"Economically, they're very important," said Mears of the travelers who expect to find their driver in baggage claim to help carry their bags and provide other services.

The airport strictly prohibits drivers from soliciting passengers inside the terminal, instead allowing them only to hold up signs with their companies' names and the names of passengers who booked reservations with them.

Airport officials say the proposal, which would include an airport-staffed information booth on the second level while the transportation companies are stationed on the first level, is intended to cut down on illegal solicitations as well as prevent future crowding problems.

Ronald Lewis, the airport's director of operations, said he thought the hearing provided valuable input toward solving the solicitation and capacity problems.

"The intent is not to make things more complicated," Lewis said. "We can't wait until a crisis arises and then fix it."

Though the airport plans a second public hearing for Nov. 30 and final consideration of the proposal at the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority's Dec. 14 meeting, at least some of the information booths have already been installed.

Some of the independent drivers said they thought the decision was already made before Monday's hearing.

"They're just making a show of it," said Somalal Anand, who operates Limocar Inc.