Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport Rethinks Cab, Limo Services

Some passengers at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport may have to pay more for a short taxi ride and others would no longer be able to hire a curbside limousine because of a long-standing feud between cabbies and limo drivers.

Ongoing bickering between the two groups is forcing the airport to overhaul its ground transportation services in an effort to improve customer service. Passengers who need to take a cab or a limo have complained that they feel harassed by drivers who both barter and solicit them for business, despite rules that forbid such behavior.

The recommendations, which still need to be approved, would affect travelers in several ways:

* Meter rates won't change, but the minimum cost of a taxi ride from the airport would be set at $15, the equivalent of about a five-mile trip. Right now, there is no minimum.

* People would be able to use credit cards to pay cab fares. Now, cabbies take only cash.

* Limo service will be available only by reservation. Currently, passengers can grab a limo on the spot just like a cab at all three terminals.

"The important thing for us is that we are able to ensure the services that the customer wants, and that we provide a good service," Assistant Aviation Director Carl Newman said of the proposed changes. "There's just been ongoing conflict between the cab drivers and the limo drivers, and a lot of times the customer gets caught between the two."

The recommendations come after nearly six months of study by an outside consultant. They will be discussed by the Aviation Advisory Committee on Thursday and then must be approved by the Phoenix City Council.

The changes come on the heels of a new plan to raise airport parking fees. Rates are set to jump 25 to 60 percent by the first of the year and could even double if people keep using the lots at the rate they are now, officials said. That means that rates could reach as much as $10 a day in the economy service lots and $25 a day in the terminal garages.

The parking fees will also be discussed Thursday.

This latest proposal was meant to end a lengthy spat between taxi and limo drivers but is already being criticized by both groups.

Limo drivers fear that taking away their "on-demand" service, in which a customer can simply walk out to the terminal curb and request a luxury vehicle, will bankrupt them.

Taxi drivers say the changes don't do enough to help them make a living wage.

Although it will help them make more money for short trips, they also wanted higher meter rates and a fuel surcharge to help offset gas prices. They are happy about the elimination of on-demand limo service, accusing the drivers of trying to steal customers by promising better fares and a nicer ride.

Sky Harbor is one of the only major airports in the country that has the on-demand service option.

"There are so many fights," said George Omari, a driver for the Discount cab company. "It's a shame to see two drivers fight in front of customers. It's not good for business."

Limo drivers counter that a small group of cabbies is the source of the trouble and that the new rules would take away their sole income source as most are small-business owners who serve only the airport.

"We don't know what we will do if they kick us out. All of my work is at the airport," said Nick Peimani, the owner of Prince Limousine Co., which operates three cars at Sky Harbor.

Jihad Khoury, owner and operator at Affordable Limousine Service, says his small company can't compete with the big limousine services that operate on reservations. On-demand fares make up 97 percent of his business, he said.

Driver tension is nothing new.

In March, angry cab drivers created a 57-taxi roadblock that snarled downtown traffic for nearly four hours by parking across four of the five lanes of Washington Street in front of Phoenix City Hall.

The noisy demonstration, which was designed to draw attention to working conditions at the airport, caught Phoenix officials by surprise.

The drivers came to the city with a litany of complaints about how they are treated by their employers, saying they held Phoenix responsible because the city contracts with the companies to provide airport service.

Their grievances focused on several major areas, including the cost of leasing their cars from their employers, insurance coverage, the requirement that they use expensive compressed natural gas and competition from on-demand limo drivers.

The airport also says that taxi drivers, who often have to wait in a holding lot for up to 90 minutes before heading to the terminal for a fare, sometimes balk at taking customers who only wish to travel a short distance.

"They tend to refuse short fares, and that creates a real problem for us," Newman said.

That's why officials are recommending the $15 minimum fare rule for rides from the airport. That equates to about a five-mile ride under the airport's current rate structure.

It's unlikely that any changes would go into effect much before Christmas, and some may take even longer. Limousine drivers, for example, are already asking that the elimination of the on-demand service be phased in or dropped altogether.

SuperShuttle and other van or bus services would not be affected.

So far, passengers seem ambivalent to the proposed rules.

Many who take cabs on a regular basis say they rely on them for transportation to their homes and are used to paying a fare of $15 or more anyway, although they do seem to like the idea of being able to use their credit cards.

They also say that they won't miss the on-demand limousine service.

"It seems to me that you could always make a reservation if you wanted to take a limo," Chandler resident Joan Kelly said. "Overall, I really don't think this is going to affect me very much."

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By the numbers

542,013: Taxi trips from the airport in 2004.

55,363: Limo trips from the airport in 2004.

195: Taxicabs permitted to operate at Sky Harbor.

27: On-demand limousines serving Sky Harbor.

$15: Estimated "shared ride" limo rate from Sky Harbor to downtown Phoenix.

$6-$13: Estimated taxicab rate from Sky Harbor to downtown Phoenix.

Source: Sky Harbor International Airport

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What's next

The Aviation Advisory Board will meet at 3 p.m. Thursday to discuss the proposed changes. Public comment is welcome. The meeting will be held at Sky Harbor International Airport, 3400 E. Sky Harbor Blvd., in Terminal 3, on Level 3 in the West Mezzanine.

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Key recommendations

* Eliminate on-demand limousines. Sky Harbor is one of the only airports in the country to offer this service, which allows passengers to walk to the curb and take a for-hire limousine to their destinations. In the future, all limo trips would have to be booked in advance.

* Institute a minimum $15 cab fare. All passengers traveling to any destination from Sky Harbor would have to pay this taxi fare. Overall meter rates would not change.

* Require cabdrivers to accept credit cards. Currently, any passenger taking a cab has to have cash.

* Create new ground-transportation information centers inside the terminals. These one-stop-shop booths would provide passengers an overview of taxi rates and available services, including cabs, shuttles and buses. It would also serve as a gathering area where pre-booked limousine drivers could meet customers.

* Eliminate taxi service on the southern curbs of Terminals 3 and 4. Currently, customers can hire a taxi or limo from both the northern and southern curbs. Airport officials believe the change would alleviate customer confusion by having service only on the northern curb.

CAPTION: Allstate driver Richard A. Merkin (right) helps a customer load bags into his cab Monday at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

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