John Wayne Airport has positioned itself to be one of the first large Southern California airports to permit Uber, Lyft and other smartphone app-based ride services to operate alongside the traditional fleets of taxi cabs, town cars and shuttle buses.
Orange County supervisors this week agreed to let the popular ride-sharing services apply for permission under a new operating permit to pick up passengers at John Wayne, which is now the third-busiest commercial airport in Southern California.
Los Angeles International Airport officials still have not cleared the way for the demand-based companies to pick up passengers, and San Diego will experiment with a pilot program this spring for Uber, Lyft and others to operate at that airfield.
The on-demand ride services – which can be hailed through a smartphone app – have quickly become a popular alternative to the traditional taxi cab. But both Uber and Lyft, the leaders among ride-sharing providers, are increasingly facing criticism regarding the way they handle insurance and background checks.
Still, customer demand has forced airports to contemplate how to regulate the ride-sharing companies if they are allowed to fetch customers within the typically bustling curbside environment of taxi cabs, shuttle vans and rental car buses.
At John Wayne, drivers for companies like Uber and Lyft are now permitted to drop off customers, but arriving passengers who want to avoid queuing up for a cab have to walk across busy MacArthur Boulevard to meet up with a ride-sharing service.
The new, month-to-month permits at John Wayne will allow drivers to enter the airport premises only if a pick-up has been requested and confirmed. The companies must pay a $2.25 pick-up fee, which officials hope to monitor using a “geo-fence” technology being tested at San Francisco Airport. The technology would surround the airport with a virtual fence that would be able to monitor cars as they enter and depart, and track pick-up and drop-off activity.
For now, John Wayne will rely on something far less high-tech – the honor system.
Mike Dorsey, a public policy director for Uber, urged supervisors this week to approve the agreement, saying it would maximize consumer choice and promote fair competition.
But Supervisor Lisa Bartlett expressed concern over the guarantee of passenger safety and adequate oversight of drivers. Unlike cab companies, which have conformed to stringent oversight, Uber and Lyft have pushed back against tight regulation.
“If we have a driver that comes through that doesn’t have insurance and has some issues with the DMV, we don’t want them picking up passengers,” Bartlett said.
But Chairman Todd Spitzer said he thought it was “a free market” issue.
“If somebody wants to use an app to get in a car with somebody they don’t know a lot about, I honestly don’t think that’s a very smart thing to do, but who am I as the government to say,” Spitzer said. “That’s how Uber works, you’re hiring a stranger.”
Spitzer also called for future discussion of whether taxis should be allowed to use smartphone apps, too.
In the meantime, Uber, Lyft and others can now apply to begin operating under the month-to-month permit at John Wayne. The forms must be submitted, reviewed and cleared by the airport before the pick-up service will start. The airport did not know how long that process would take.