Terminal Illness

Airport taxi system screws drivers, riders

Photo by Keith MayFor the past two months, a consortium of three cab companies has been providing taxi service at John Wayne Airport (JWA). The companies—Anaheim Yellow Cab, California Yellow Cab and Fiesta Taxi—took over for the bankrupt American Taxi, whose cabs were repossessed in late November 2001. Headed by colorful, fast-talking, ex-helicopter broker to Latin American dictators Rick Schorling, American had held the exclusive JWA contract since March 2000. The county's practice of maintaining a monopoly over taxi service at the airport dates back many years, and while it's lucrative for the airport, it has proved unwieldy and inefficient. To find out how life has changed at the terminal's taxi queue, we talked with one of the drivers, who requested anonymity.

OC Weekly: How long have you driven a cab at John Wayne?Driver: Like many of the drivers, I've been at the airport for 10 years. In that time, I've driven for Anaheim Yellow Cab, A Taxi, American Taxi, as well as the current consortium. Driving a cab is pretty much a cash business. Can you explain how this works?

My cab lease is $700 per week. I pay that at the beginning of the week. Typically, I'll make back that $700 over the week and another $400 to $600 for myself. To make that much money, I have to drive 14 to 15 hours per day, six days a week. That comes out to about minimum wage, but it's all cash. We're independent drivers, which means no benefits. Also, I don't drive on Sundays, except sometimes when I drive Sunday evenings. But a lot of drivers will work seven days a week.

How is business?

Bad. I didn't make my lease last week, which means I had to pay for the cab out of my own pocket. The only other time I've not made my lease in all the years I've been driving was the week of Sept. 11. American, which still had the cab contract, didn't want to reduce the lease, even though no one was using the airport. They agreed to give us a break for one day, the 11th, but that was it.

Why is business so bad now?

Since Sept. 11, the number of passengers at the airport has gone down significantly. But the number of taxis—to the frustration of the drivers—has gone up. When American had the contract, they limited the number of cabs that could go to the airport to 85. When the consortium came in, they put in 105 to 109 cabs.

I've seen them fill the lot at the corner of Campus and MacArthur.

There are so many cabs at the tie-down area waiting to go in that they've overflowed into the shuttle space. This is why I liked driving for American: they limited the number of cabs. Now, since the consortium increased the number of cabs, they've cut the pie into too many slices. The result is the average load per taxi driver has gone down, bringing down each driver's income. Now no one is making any money.

So simply cutting down the number of cabs would solve the problem. . . .

Yes and no. When the consortium came in, they also began something called the One-Two-One System. The way it works is that Anaheim Yellow Cab, which is the principal company in the consortium, will have two cabs at the airport for every one California Yellow cab and Fiesta cab. The numbers work out to roughly 53 to 55 cabs for Anaheim Yellow, 23 to 25 cabs for California Yellow and 30 cabs for Fiesta.

That doesn't sound so bad.

It's actually really confusing because there are now four lines for drivers to get into when they get to the airport—one for Fiesta, one for California Yellow and two for Anaheim Yellow. Say a Fiesta driver goes into the tie-down area and gets into his line behind three other Fiesta cabs, but no one else is there. If there were a first-come, first-served system, that driver would be fourth into the terminal. But under the One-Two-One System, he's actually going to be at least 13th in line. That's because cabs can only go into the terminal in sets of four. That Fiesta driver has to wait not only for the three Fiesta cabs in front of him to go in, but also for the other lanes to fill up. Remember, he can only go in when another California Yellow and two Anaheim Yellow cabs are going in as well.

Consortium officials say the system is the fairest they've come up with to give passengers a choice of cab companies and that, for the most part, drivers aren't complaining, but it still sounds like a mess.

Yeah. Right now, the guy who runs the tie-down area goes crazy from one end of the lot to the other trying to keep everyone in line. He runs around like a chicken with his head cut off. For the rest of us, we just have to wait. It's common to spend a couple of hours each day just waiting in line to go into the terminal. Some of us play chess to pass the time. The Indian drivers play this card game that I don't understand. There are a lot of different cliques—Palestinians, Egyptians, Indians—and each group comes up with their own entertainment.

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