LAX Van Rules Stir Trouble : Shuttles: Some firms are trying to evade the regulations, personnel and airport officials say. Such actions have led to fights and protests.
Strict new rules intended to bring order to the brutally competitive and sometimes anarchic door-to-door shuttle van industry at Los Angeles International Airport have produced violence, arrests, cheating and protests, say shuttle personnel and airport officials.
Since authorities on Aug. 1 banned from the airport all vans not picking up prearranged customers, some companies have hired phony passengers, called “bogus packs,” to stand outside terminals and request certain van companies--and sometimes, somewhat artlessly, specific drivers.
Competitors have tried documenting the practice on film and videotape, leading to fights among rival drivers and at least two arrests on battery charges. The confrontations, along with fewer bookings, led about 30 employees of small shuttle companies to march in protest from the bleak shuttle van holding lot into the passenger terminals.
Some small companies say the new rules are designed to drive them out of business and boost the fortune of industry giant SuperShuttle. Airport officials and other shuttle companies, including SuperShuttle, say the rules are needed to protect the public from a few unscrupulous van drivers and ease congestion in the central terminal area.
“I understand it,” said one sympathetic SuperShuttle supervisor, referring to the alleged cheating by competitors. “The way the rules are laid down now, they (small companies without phone reservations) are either going to follow the new rules and go out of business or they’re going to cheat like crazy. They’ve chosen to cheat like crazy.”
Competition among shuttle van drivers has bedeviled the airport almost since the day in 1986 when SuperShuttle demonstrated that brand-name marketing and professional management made it possible--and profitable--for vans to coax airport travelers out of taxis and buses.
Along with the California Public Utilities Commission’s decision to liberalize licensing of shuttle vans, SuperShuttle’s success fed an explosion in the number of companies competing for customers at airport curbs.
When competition pushed van drivers to clog airport roads, fight among themselves and harass some customers, airport authorities stepped in. They asked van companies to start a self-policing body, Shared Ride Management, then made sure it limited the number of vans let in the airport at one time. The airport also stopped issuing new van permits.
By limiting the number of vans, the system resulted in van drivers waiting, sometimes for hours, in a dingy holding lot off Sepulveda Boulevard near 96th Street. Some chose to cheat instead, sneaking into the airport under the pretext of picking up passengers who had reserved rides. Others, who entered legally, inconvenienced passengers by circling the airport repeatedly until they had enough fares to make up for the time spent waiting.
Established companies also complained that these competitors rely on making money primarily by picking up people at the airport and taking them home--not, as is required, by maintaining an expensive reservations system that also would let them pick people up at home and take them to the airport. As a result, all van companies were weakened.
Airport officials tried a different tack about two weeks ago, banning all shuttle vans from the airport unless they had confirmed reservations to pick up passengers. Once inside, the vans also could pick up customers who did not bother with reservations. The idea was to encourage drivers to solicit loyal customers and discourage drivers from loitering at the airport hoping to grab whoever walked off a plane.
The new rule also made life very hard for small companies that lack SuperShuttle’s name recognition and do not serve such distant markets as Ventura County or the Santa Clarita Valley. These companies often were started by and employ recent immigrants with little capital who say they have mortgaged their homes for the chance to struggle and make their companies grow.
According to their competitors, these companies also have resorted to using sham passengers to make bogus reservations, letting their vans into the airport, where they solicit fares from real riders with no reservations.
“Since this went into effect, these guys are cheating like crazy--getting their brothers, mothers, sisters, girlfriends and anybody else they can find to stand on the curbs and ask for them,” said Rich Powers, a SuperShuttle dispatcher who participated in the videotaping of the alleged infractions.
“We were getting the same people day in and day out, getting in and out of the same vans” when the taping was done, he said.
An airport police officer, who declined to give his name, said he was aware of several such incidents, including one in which the phony rider was identified as an on-duty shuttle company supervisor. He held neither luggage nor ticket, but did carry a company walkie-talkie when he approached an airport customer service representative and requested one of his company’s vans.
Arguments over such practices, whether real or imagined, have occasionally boiled over into violence. SuperShuttle workers said they have been hit, shoved and threatened with crowbars. A driver at another company claimed that he saw a competitor brandish a pistol. Airport spokesman Tom Winfrey said a SuperShuttle supervisor was cited by Los Angeles police for allegedly using his van to nudge a rival, who was on foot.
“We have some competitive emotions among the drivers of our shuttle companies,” Winfrey said.
Airport authorities lowered tensions somewhat by persuading companies to stop following and photographing their rivals, a primary source of provocation.
What airport officials plan to do beyond that is unclear. Joseph R. Clair, manager of the department that oversees all airport ground transportation services, did not return telephone calls last week.