Mark Hayward's City Matters: Regulations differ for taxis, ride-sharing services
IF YOU FLY INTO Manchester-Boston Regional Airport and want to hire a driver, you have two options:
1. Use your mobile phone to summon a car, then wait outside the terminal building. A driver, probably just minutes away, picks you up at the curb.
2. Lug your bags across the airport driveway and hire an airport cab.
In and of itself, the difference is trivial. A few extra steps, a wet coat if it’s raining.
But it sums up the dichotomy that exists at the Manchester airport when it comes to rides for hire.
There’s traditional airport cabs, whose owners say they are overburdened by insurance requirements, fees, mandatory fares and rules that go as far as saying where they can pick up passengers.
Then there are ride-sharing services, like Lyft and Uber. These drivers are exempt from the rules, fees and public disclosure of ordinary taxi drivers. Their insurance requirement is about half that for Manchester airport taxis.
And their fares are less, meaning a lot of airport drivers are sitting around with little to do nowadays.
Mazhar “Max” Ahmad, who started the airport taxi service Blue Sky Transport 14 years ago, estimates that he has lost 60 percent of his business in the last four years. He’s gone from nine cars to three.
“Either make Uber like me, or me like Uber,” Ahmad said this week.
Last year, it looked like that was going to happen. Manchester aldermen had given city officials the green light to start enforcing Manchester regulations governing taxis (background checks, drug testing, insurance) on Uber drivers.
But Uber short-circuited that effort, getting a law passed in Concord that gave ride-sharing companies nearly everything they asked for: legal recognition, exemption from local regulations, required insurance of only $300,000 per trip, and their own background check system.
That became Uber regulation.
And that change was quickly felt at the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport.
First, some background. The airport has long demanded more from airport taxis than your run-of-the-mill city cab, figuring airport passengers deserve better.
Airport ground transportation regulations are 31 pages long. They govern everything from driver clothing (no collarless shirts or open-toed shoes), vehicle repair (no use of duct tape), where to line up for passengers, random drug tests, and insurance ($100,000 workers comp; $500,000 auto liability).
With regulations, come fees. Ahmad said airport licensing and permits amount to $140 a year. Plus $50 he pays for copies of his criminal and driving record that he has to supply to airport officials. Taxis also pay 50 cents every time they pick up a fare; limos pay $1.
For awhile, the regulations benefited the airport taxi companies. If you followed the regulations and paid the fees, you had customers every time a plane landed. The airport even set their price.
An airport taxi fare from the airport to the New Hampshire Union Leader offices is $20; when I checked Uber-regulation, it was $14.
If you’re like me, you want the law to be fair. If one set of regulations is good enough for taxi drivers, it should be for Uber-regulation drivers. But I’m also cheap, and if I can save $6 on a 6½-mile trip, I’m all for that.
What to do about it? Ahmad and two other drivers said they want Uber drivers to follow the same rules. An Uber driver suggested fewer regulations for everyone.
“I wish government would get out of it, more than they would get into it,” said Josh Moore, an Uber driver who is also a Republican state rep from Merrimack. He also thinks that taxi drivers have to adapt.
Ahmad has done some of that. He’s slowly shifted away from airport business to a private car service. He also worked out a contract with an airline to drive passengers to Boston in case of a flight cancelation.
While he wants one set of regulations for everyone, he also thinks some old-fashioned price cutting is in store.
“The majority of people are Wal-Mart customers, free-market customers. They want to get somewhere cheap,” he said. Airport rates, he said, were last set when gas was $4 a gallon, and drivers were complaining that rates were too low. (A trip to Nashua or Concord is $60; to Logan Airport is $130.)
The airport said it is discussing adjustments to the fare structure by going to a $2.40 a mile fare. Some trips would cost more, some less, said Deputy Airport Director Thomas Malafronte.
But not all drivers want change, fearful they will make even less money.
“Make me like them and I can do it,” said Darwish Darwish, who runs 5-Star Airport Service, when asked about lower fares. “But I can’t sit here for three or four hours. I can’t do it.”
Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.