Hug a stranger. Hop into the front seat of his car. And keep your cell phone out of sight.
Those are some of the tips UberX users are sharing with each other to sidestep the ban on commercial ride-share pickups at the Atlanta airport.
The rule has created a game of cat-and-mouse that some drivers and customers play to avoid getting caught. This year officers at Hartsfield-Jackson International have issued more than 125 citations to Uber drivers for operating without a commercial permit, sometimes impounding cars and leaving customers stranded at the curb.
Uber has gained popularity by enabling people to request a ride via a smartphone app for immediate pick-up. They can get upscale private car service via UberBlack or lower-priced rides from people using their own cars via UberX. A rival, Lyft, also offers ride-share service. Users pay for their rides via the app.
But Hartsfield-Jackson — one of the busiest venues for pickups anywhere — says taxi or car services that pick up travelers must have a permit. Many UberBlack drivers do, but UberX and Lyft drivers typically don’t. Drop offs are permitted by all.
The airport, owned and run by the city of Atlanta, says it wants to ensure a standard of safety for travelers through government-regulated background checks of drivers and insurance coverage minimums. Uber has been using its own standards.
The airport also collects access fees from commercial drivers to help pay for ground transportation infrastructure including hold lots, pickup areas and staffing.
The conflict between Uber drivers and airport rules makes Hartsfield-Jackson one bustling example of the unsettled legal landscape between technology-driven ride-sharing services and established regulations governing ground transportation.
It turns some ride-share drivers into modern blockade runners.
‘Like a brother’
“I pick up at the airport, but [my customers] are regulars and we know how to do it,” said UberX driver Gary Perrin, of Marietta. “If anyone asks them, they say I’m related to them. They get in the front seat … just like they’re my brother.”
Perrin hides his “U” Uber logo, which he usually shows in the window, and his phone showing the Uber app when picking up at the airport. He stops short of the other evasive move some drivers use — greeting the customer as if they were a relative or close friend.
“I’m not hugging nobody,” Perrin said. “I’m not getting no sexual harassment.”
Perrin said he stays in the car and calls as little attention to himself as possible. “The people who get caught are the ones that have the phone in the window, they pull up, they load the luggage up just like they’re a limo driver.”
Enforcement appears erratic. The airport issued 28 citations in January, 13 in February, 60 in March and 26 in April.
Officials don’t say much about how the rule is enforced. Staff and enforcement officers monitor “unauthorized transportation activity,” a spokesman said in a response to the AJC. “If caught, violators could be cited and/or towed.”
Citations reveal some giveaways: A passenger getting into the back seat of a car without an airport decal, while the driver loads the bags into the trunk. A conversation overheard among passengers at the curb saying they are waiting for their Uber driver. An Uber sticker. A driver’s phone showing the Uber app running. A passenger approaching several vehicles “asking if they were her Uber driver.”
Uber fans share tips on message boards and in conversation: Take a shuttle to a nearby airport hotel and request an Uber pickup there. Take the free SkyTrain to the rental car center for a pickup — though non-permitted pickup vehicles are not supposed to operate there either.
Some drivers say they were unaware of the rules. They say they still get requests for rides from Hartsfield-Jackson while waiting in the airport’s cell phone lot. Uber is not currently blocking requests for UberX on airport grounds.
Airport officials remain resolute.
“All commercial vehicles and drivers conducting business at the Airport must be properly permitted by the Department of Aviation and follow all State of Georgia statutes, City ordinances and Airport rules and regulations when conducting business at the airport,” according to Hartsfield-Jackson.
Not surprisingly, cab and limo services back the airport’s stance, saying it’s not a level playing field if non-permitted services enter the game.
But change could come from another direction. A bill passed by the state Legislature would authorize an airport to regulate and establish fees for ride-share network services as of July 1. It awaits Gov. Nathan Deal’s siganature.
San Francisco-based Uber, in a statement, said it is “eager to engage Atlanta airport administrators in a constructive dialogue that paves the way for more consumer choice and convenience for visitors and residents alike.”
Some airports, including San Francisco International and Nashville International, have already moved to legalize Uber and Lyft.
Hartsfield-Jackson said city ordinances will have to be updated to reflect the new state regulatory framework, and how long that will take is unclear.
Change isn’t coming soon enough for some Uber fans.
“It’s not customer friendly,” Uber user Bruce Garner, 65, of Midtown, said of the pickups ban. He added: “There are better uses for my tax money than worrying about who picks up who at the airport.”
How are enforcement officers spotting UberX drivers at Hartsfield-Jackson? Here are some examples from recent citations.
Feb. 27: The enforcement officer “observed a black Uber sticker in the front window near the driver side and the Uber application was open on her phone and hanging in the window of her vehicle.” The driver said she was unaware of the rule.”
Feb. 13: Officer “observed a female passenger approaching several different vehicles asking if they were her Uber driver. [Driver] flagged the same female passenger down, greeted her and loaded her luggage into the trunk of his vehicle followed by opening the back door of his vehicle for her to enter.”
Jan. 25: “[Driver] pulled up to the curb and I noticed the Uber application displayed on his phone. Additionally [driver] had the Uber ‘U’ sticker displayed…”
Jan. 2: Officer “observed [driver] meet his passenger, shake her hand and load her luggage into the trunk of his Honda Civic … After approaching the driver… and inquiring about the nature of his pickup, [driver] admitted that he was an Uber driver picking up in his personal vehicle.”