10/16/18 - Atlanta - Curbside Management Services employees direct cab drivers and travelers to ground transportation at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Hartsfield-Jackson contract dispute unearths taxi drivers’ frustrations

An airport contract moving forward at Atlanta City Hall to help travelers with ground transportation has laid bare the frustrations of taxi drivers who struggle to get enough business as riders increasingly use Uber and Lyft.

Airport officials want to award a curbside management contract to a company, MTI Limo and Shuttle Services, that has faced challenges managing the hours-long queues that taxi drivers wait in for the chance to pick up passengers.

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Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has a hold lot for as many as 300 taxi cabs waiting for passengers to pick up, but the backup of taxi drivers waiting for business routinely surpasses the capacity of the lot.

“The waiting time now is more than three hours,” said taxi driver Sharmarke Yonis.

Taxi drivers, who face increased competition from Uber and Lyft, have detailed at city council committee meetings a list of grievances about the airport — turning a dispute over a controversial contract for the management of curbside traffic of commercial vehicles into a proxy battle in their larger struggle at the airport.

“We’ve got an existential crisis at the airport right now and it threatens the very existence of the taxi cab industry,” said Vic Bolton, a representative for a coalition called the Atlanta Airport Ground Transportation Association.

Still, the city council transportation committee voted in favor of approving the contract Wednesday worth up to $7.6 million and it is set to go to the full council for approval Monday.

City council member J.P. Matzigkeit called for Hartsfield-Jackson general manager John Selden to evaluate the ground transportation landscape at the airport including taxis, Uber and Lyft to determine “how do we address the concerns that we’ve heard today and countless other concerns we’ve heard.”

The backup of drivers waiting for fares had become so large that the airport in 2015 awarded MTI a contract to manage the taxi overflow and tasked it with developing an app for taxi drivers to digitally queue up to enter the hold lot.

The app was delayed and once it was released this year, some taxi drivers said it had bugs and was difficult to use.

Those drivers initially argued the city should not award another contract to MTI for other airport work — namely, a curbside management contract MTI was selected to win.

10/16/18 - Atlanta - Curbside Management Services employees direct travelers to ground transportation at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The curbside management contract is to manage taxis, shuttles and other commercial vehicles at the curbside of the world’s busiest airport. The contract has been held since 2011 by a vendor close to former Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, A-National Limousine, operating as Curbside Management Services.

A-National won the contract while its CEO Darrell Anderson and then-Mayor Kasim Reed were part-owners in an investment property off Fairburn Road. Anderson is a longtime associate of Reed’s.

A 2012 study commissioned by the airport determined that the award of the contract to A-National led to “a perception of, if not a real, conflict of interest,” with A-National operating shuttles and limos while managing commercial traffic at the airport under the curbside management contract. “Typically, if a third-party contractor is used to manage curbs or dispatching/starter operations, they are not also offering transportation services in the form of service providers.”

However, the airport does not see it as a conflict of interest.

This year, with the contract expiring, Hartsfield-Jackson rebid the contract, with MTI and A-National competing for it. A-National itself has not appeared to speak in opposition to the contract award to MTI.

Instead, Kevin Ross, an attorney and political consultant who has represented Anderson in the past, has appeared at city council committee meetings representing the taxi industry, speaking against the award of the contract to MTI. Taxi drivers have also shown up at meetings for months to speak on the issue.

“This thing has not been resolved,” Ross said. He asked city council members to “not move forward with award to this vendor.”

MTI, which also operates limos and shuttles at the airport, gained attention in 2013 when one of its hotel shuttles was in an accident with a tractor trailer that injured 16 passengers.

Under MTI’s taxi overflow lot contract, some taxi drivers said the company did a poor job of deploying the app to manage the queue.

10/16/18 - Atlanta - Curbside Management Services employees direct travelers to ground transportation at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

It was years before the app was deployed amid delays while the airport moved the taxi hold lot to a new location, with taxis using a paper ticket system to queue up to enter the lot. Among the challenges the airport has faced is figuring out how to prevent drivers from gaming the system to jump the line.

For the last several months, the curbside management contract was delayed by the council committee as taxi drivers argued the taxi hold lot app still had bugs and MTI should not win the curbside management contract.

Now, airport officials say the system is working.

The app is now “exceptionally reliable and works very well, and controls the queue without paper,” said Selden.

He said the new curbside management contract will double the staff at the airport curb, to help manage traffic flows during construction when shuttles will move to the commercial vehicle lot and help passengers with disabilities.

Selden, whose started as airport general manager last month, vowed to look into the concerns of cab drivers and others about the ground transportation landscape.

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