John Wayne Airport has positioned itself to be one of the first large Southern California airports to permit Uber, Lyft and other smartphone-based ride services to operate alongside the traditional fleets of taxicabs, 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 the third busiest commercial airport in Southern California.
After a year defending against demands for increased regulation, the ride-sharing companies have been pushing their way into Sacramento's lobbying scene, with Uber hiring its first lobbyist in the state in early 2013.
But in a unanimous vote Tuesday, the conservative-leaning board of supervisors in Orange County seemed to need little coaxing, cheering the idea of increased competition.
"If I was Uber, I would have started here," Chairman Todd Spitzer said.
LAX officials still have not cleared the way for the demand-based companies to pick up passengers, despite petitions and other campaigning efforts by Uber and Lyft. 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. But both Uber and Lyft, the leaders among ride-sharing providers, are increasingly facing scrutiny of 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 cabs, shuttle vans and rental-car buses.
Mark Petracca, an associate professor of political science at UC Irvine, said the vote in Orange County represents a free-market approach and lines up with the county's "very strong libertarian strain."
Petracca suggested that in a county where developers have long held sway with politicians, entrepreneurs may be emerging as a new political force.
"This is not pro-business as usual," he said. "It's pro-competition and pro-market."
Staffers at John Wayne began working with Uber and Lyft last year when the companies approached them about operating out of the airport, said Jenny Wedge, an airport spokeswoman. And the airport sought their feedback after developing a proposal to accommodate the ride-sharing services.
"We knew it was a type of service that was very popular here, so we went ahead and just started," Wedge said.
Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach) and the Orange County Business Council both sent letters of support, and Spitzer said Uber called his office to arrange a meeting, though he never got together with the company.
Bryan Starr, a senior vice president with the business council, said the group supported Uber and Lyft, especially because the county lacks the public transportation available in Los Angeles, the Bay Area and New York City. The business council had already advocated on behalf of the companies in Sacramento when the ride-sharing firms were facing possible increased regulation.
Spitzer, who said he is not a personal fan of either ride-sharing service, said he ultimately pushed for allowing them to do business at the airport because that's what consumers seemed to demand.
"Uber is becoming a mega, billion-dollar corporation," Spitzer said. "This whole concept is resonating with people worldwide. I'm not about to get in the way."
At John Wayne, Uber and Lyft drivers 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 pickup has been requested and confirmed. The companies also must pay a $2.25 pickup 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 could monitor cars as they enter and depart, and track pickup 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 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 pickup service will start. The airport did not know how long that process would take.