Ride-sharing changes the airport game

SuperShuttle’s retreat from Atlanta shows impact of Uber, Lyft.

In years past, the abrupt shutdown of the primary airport shuttle operator might have sent shivers throughout downtown Atlanta hotels and Midtown businesses.

Yet when national chain SuperShuttle pulled out of the Atlanta market two weeks ago, there were more shrugs than panic attacks.

“If this was five years ago, I believe that our industry would have a lot more anxiety about not having that type of [shuttle] service available,” said Peter McMahon, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Atlanta.

“But as technology has changed and the traveling public has become more accustomed to alternative transportation with third parties such as Uber and Lyft … I don’t think it’s going to be a real long-term liability for the traveler.”

SuperShuttle’s departure is the latest sign of disruption in the ground transportation industry that serves Atlanta’s convention and hospitality trade, as well as many businesses.

Last year the city of Atlanta spent months grappling with how to deal with ride-share pickups at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, where they were happening despite a loosely enforced prohibition based on the drivers’ lack of city-issued permits.

At the beginning of this year, the city started permitting Uber and Lyft drivers with various conditions and started collecting a per-passenger fee from the companies. The idea was to create a level playing field with taxi and limo drivers who also pay such a fee, and who feel threatened by the rising smartphone-based competition.

Even that has led to further snarls, however, with taxi drivers now appealing one new regulation that all vehicles — ride-share or traditional cabs — be no more than seven years old.

Cabbies say that rule, which comes just three years after a 10-year limit was imposed on them, put hundreds of cars out of commission and raised costs just as they face a wave of ride-share rivals.

SuperShuttle, based in Phoenix, in 2014 won a contract to operate shared-ride shuttles between the Atlanta airport and downtown, Midtown and Buckhead.

Rarely full

McMahon said he saw SuperShuttles pick up passengers at the Hyatt Regency daily, “but it was rare that I ever saw one full.”

McMahon and other hotel managers say they are going to monitor how things go for their guests using other forms of transportation.

SuperShuttle, an international company that operates shared-ride shuttles in dozens of airports, pulled out of Hartsfield-Jackson effective March 1. The company cited the increased competition from ride-share services Uber and Lyft as a key cause.

“The airport transportation landscape is changing pretty rapidly these days,” SuperShuttle International president Dave Bird said in an interview with the AJC.

Hotels in the central business district of Atlanta had long depended on shared-ride shuttles as one of the options for customers to get to and from the airport, for a price below that of a taxi.

“SuperShuttle was recognizable all over the country. That’s why it was great for us to have it in Atlanta, too,” said Erica Qualls-Battey, general manager of the Atlanta Marriott Marquis in downtown Atlanta.

“Atlanta is a city that thrives on convention business, and we want to make sure that conventioneers have every option of mode of transportation available to them.”

More options

But lower-priced Uber and Lyft rides have transformed the ground transportation industry, giving more options to travelers and disrupting the business models of competitors including taxis and shuttle services.

“I just traveled out of town and I saw everyone get into Uber and Lyft,” Qualls-Battey said. “They now have Uber and Lyft stands.”

SuperShuttle took over the shared-ride airport shuttle contract serving the central business district after previous local shuttle operators struggled with the business.

Now, the airport says permitted local operators again will help fill the gaps, while it won’t seek a replacement for the SuperShuttle contract.

Atlanta city council member Andre Dickens voted against the measure to grant the contract to SuperShuttle in 2014, saying then that he was “concerned about what happens down the line…. We want to be a place that fosters small business.”

A few days after SuperShuttle’s pullout, Dickens said: “This is not a ‘told you so’ moment, but, you know… I told you so.”

“We want to look at local companies that support our local economy,” Dickens said.

“We should be wary of large organizations” that can pay high bids to win a contract. SuperShuttle had submitted a bid of $455,000 for Hartsfield-Jackson’s shared-ride shuttle contract. That was about three times the minimum bid and $184,000 more than the second-highest bid.

“Just as quickly as they can get in with money, they can get out because the money may not be fitting,” Dickens said. “Local companies: The minute that you say SuperShuttle is gone, they all raise their hands again and say ‘I want to get back in there.’ We need to dance with the ones that got us here sometimes.”

When hoteliers first heard about SuperShuttle shutting down in Atlanta, they were “disappointed to hear they were leaving,” said Jim Sprouse, executive director of the Georgia Hotel and Lodging Association.

“We’ll all keep an eye on it and see where it goes, because we want to make sure our customers are served and they’re happy with their experience in Atlanta.”

Locals step in

Hotels can still offer several options for transportation to the airport, Sprouse said, including taxis, MARTA and Uber or Lyft.

With SuperShuttle’s departure, Hartsfield-Jackson is now allowing local shared-ride shuttles that operate in the suburbs to pick up passengers in Atlanta’s central business district. But rather than a single go-to shuttle operator, there will be a number of smaller local operators.

The smaller local shuttle operators are “going to have to make themselves known at each of the hotels and earn their business, because no one wants to make a referral and then have that guest disappointed,” Sprouse said.

Qualls-Battey said consistency is important. “We need to gauge how effective it is based on this new operating model,” she said. “It is about consistency, cleanliness and timeliness for me…. No. 1 priority is taking great care of our guests so they’ll come to Atlanta again.”

McMahon said he will also evaluate customer comments, “and if it becomes an issue for our guests, we will certainly bring that up.”

But, he said: “Uber and Lyft is such a way of life for travelers now … It was really inevitable that the [shuttle] platform was probably unsustainable.”

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