Besieged by independent shuttle vans and limousines cluttering terminal areas as they troll for passengers, Los Angeles International Airport officials are fighting back.
In the last three months, airport police have started enforcing 56 new rules aimed at bringing the van and limousine operations under tighter control and chasing out unscrupulous or unlicensed operators.
Some officers on occasion have gone undercover, disguised as tourists, to catch disobedient drivers.
More Than 1,000 Citations Issued
“Some of these drivers will do whatever they can to get a passenger,” said Joseph Clair, who oversees van and limousine operations for the airport. “There is no question in my mind they will.”
Airport police have issued more than 1,000 citations since July to drivers for violations such as circling the airport too many times in search of passengers--the allowable number is two--or leaving their vehicle unattended for too long.
The crackdown has brought howls of protest from some van operators, who contend that overzealous police are interfering with their ability to make a living.
Limousine operators are not happy, either. The companies have hauled the airport into Superior Court, challenging in a lawsuit a rule that requires them, along with bus and van operators, to obtain a permit to operate at LAX. The limousine drivers fear that other area airports could follow suit.
“The main thing is that if LAX can do this, John Wayne can do it, and Burbank can do it, and Palm Springs can do it,” said James Geffner, an attorney representing the 120-member Limousine Owners Assn. of California.
The new rules were prompted, airport officials say, by increases in both the number and variety of airport transportation businesses operating at LAX. The handful of van companies serving LAX six years ago, for instance, has grown to 20 as the state Public Utilities Commission, in the spirit of deregulation, has not limited their numbers and travelers have flocked to them. The vans can carry up to about a dozen passengers and offer travelers door-to-door service within an area, such as the San Fernando Valley, at a lower price than a taxi.
“From a consumer’s standpoint, this is probably the greatest thing that has happened in transportation,” airport police Capt. Alan Hyde said.
Limousine Permits Mushroom
At the same time, the number of limousines operating at the airport has mushroomed. The airport estimates that of the 294 permits it has issued to all transportation companies, at least 75% have gone to limousine firms. One permit can cover a fleet of dozens of vehicles operated by a single company.
Add to the vans and limousines a growing number of courtesy buses, operated by hotels and car rental agencies, and the result, on occasion, has been minor mayhem in front of terminals.
“At the bus stops, there are passengers that complain about the carnival atmosphere,” said John Kindt Jr., president of Van Nuys-based Prime Time Shuttle.
To bring order to the situation, LAX officials last spring began requiring bus, van and limousine operators to obtain permits from the airport in addition to the one they must receive from the PUC. Forcing the companies to get a permit from LAX, airport officials say, enables police to quickly determine who is authorized to work at the airport and who is not, without having to check with the PUC.
Then, in July, the airport began imposing the 56 rules on the operators. Besides setting limits on how many times van drivers can circle the airport, the rules specify such things as how many vans a particular company can park at a curb at one time. Limousine operators also can get in trouble for failing to wear badges with their name and that of the company on it, or failing to keep their vehicles in good condition.
Citations carry no fines, but each time a driver commits a violation he is given a certain number of demerits. Depending on how many demerits its drivers accumulate, a company can be barred from operating at the airport from one day to a month. At least four companies now face possible suspensions, although they can appeal their citations to a hearing officer.
When a company is suspended, no information about it is given to travelers from the eight ground transportation assistance booths the airport operates outside terminals.
“We have all these companies trying to operate in this restricted area around the terminals,” Clair said. “We wanted to create a level playing field for all of these competitors to operate on.”
Several van and limousine owners conceded that the airport’s program has chased away some so-called bandits, or unlicensed companies, and alleviated other problems.
But Glenn Barrons, the owner of a Lawndale-based limousine company and president of the limousine owners association, complained that the airport unfairly forces limousines to carry more insurance than the PUC requires them to. Airport officials contend that the additional insurance, which limousine operations must obtain before the airport will issue them a permit, is necessary to protect the airport against lawsuits.
Some van operators complain that some rules go too far or are too vague. And airport police, they said, have been too quick to draw their pencils and write citations.
“I know they are taking care of a lot of problems down there, but in my view they need to be careful that they don’t become overzealous,” Kindt said.
Kindt and Albert Levin, president of Airport Flyer Express, a shuttle service, asserted that van drivers are hampered in their efforts to attract customers. Under a new solicitation rule, drivers are allowed to pull up to a designated curb, get out and yell out their destination twice. The airport does not allow a driver to walk up to travelers and ask where they are going.
“Sometimes people stand there and look at you and they don’t know what to do,” Levin said.
But Clair said officers have not gone overboard in writing tickets. “I don’t think we get one-tenth of the violations,” he said. “We don’t have enough airport police to do that.”
Moreover, he defended the solicitation rule as a fair one that should help stop unscrupulous drivers from approaching travelers and taking them to areas where their PUC permit does not allow them to go. For instance, an operator might be licensed to carry a passenger from LAX to the Valley, but not from the airport to Pasadena.
The number of citations should decrease, airport officials said, once drivers become more familiar with the rules and realize the airport is serious about enforcing them.
“Maybe it’ll make them think the best way to get along out here is to comply,” Clair said.