Uber drivers were clogging the arrival and departure decks at Dulles Airport — until recently.
Updated Feb. 25, 8:15 a.m.
One of the keys to Uber’s emergence as a popular alternative to taxicabs in the Washington metropolitan region has been its convenience. No matter where you order a ride, an Uber black limousine or discount UberX driver is just minutes away. But there may be one domain still ruled by the established taxi industry: the region’s major airports.
While Uber and its ride-hailing competitors Lyft and Sidecar continue to offer pre-arranged, inexpensive trips to and from Reagan National and Dulles International Airports, their drivers may no longer hang out on airport property waiting for pings.
Crowding prompts rule change
Until recently UberX drivers were seen clogging the arrival and departure decks at Dulles, slowing traffic. They were not waiting for travelers who already had booked a ride from the airport. Instead, they were waiting for a ping from anyone who had just left baggage claim, opened their Uber app, and ordered. The driver would immediately accept the ride request and pick up the passenger moments later.
“It was getting very crowded. There would be what looked like regular passenger cars but you could see they had the Uber app up on their dashboards,” said a driver who works for Uber and for a limo company, who asked to remain anonymous to protect his job.
Waiting outside the terminal for a ride request was efficient — except it was illegal. Airport rules forbid drivers for ride-hailing apps from booking trips on airport property. In fact, Uber will no longer show any vehicles on airport property at Dulles or Reagan on its app. The closest vehicles that will appear on your smartphone screen will be off airport grounds.
For taxis, the policies are different, depending on the airport. At Dulles, only taxis affiliated with Washington Flyer are permitted. At Reagan, several companies are approved and individual drivers must have permits. In both locations, you have to get a cab from the official taxi line.
So which would you prefer, a taxicab right at the terminal or an Uber driver several minutes away?
“Now an Uber is going to take 8, 10, 15 minutes, so you might as well just get a cab,” said the driver who asked not to be identified. “Because when the passenger comes out, if he pulls up his Uber app he won't see any Ubers nearby. The Dulles property is so large the closest cars are in Herndon.”
Hanging out at the airport was a smart way for drivers to do business. Now that Uber has slashed rates for a second time since August, its drivers — who frequently vent their unhappiness on internet message boards — typically try to avoid having to drive long distances to pick up passengers. It is considered a waste of valuable time and gasoline, because Uber’s digital meter does not start until a passenger steps into the car.
Christopher Paolino, a spokesman for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, said he was not aware of any recent enforcement action to kick Uber drivers off airport grounds unless they were picking up or dropping off a pre-arranged trip.
“We have a system in place working with our taxicab providers where concerns are constantly raised on both sides. The goal is to ensure quality service for customers. And where there are steps that need to be taken, steps are taken,” Paolino said.
Not the only complaint
An Uber spokesman offered a brief statement, saying the company “is continuing to work with the airport authority to determine the best approach for Uber pick-ups and waiting areas, and will certainly keep you posted as we come to a permanent solution.”
Uber drivers who service the airports are grumbling about another issue, too. The tech company recently eliminated flat rates for airport drop-offs, a nice move for customers but it means less income for drivers. Fares are now calculated based on time and distance.
UberX driver Eby Aka, who has written a lengthy letter to Uber CEO Travis Kalanick about falling fares, said what used to be a $56 trip to Dulles Airport is now so low it is not worth the time.
“Depending on where you go from D.C., you are far below the $56 we used to take. To go from here to Dulles Airport for sometimes less than $40, it is just too low. Dulles is very far from D.C.,” Aka said.