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LAX rules for Uber, Lyft and taxis create chaos — and opportunities

Los Angeles International Airport’s new system for Uber, Lyft and taxis has brought turmoil. At peak times, a traffic bottleneck can cause drivers to spend more than an hour inching toward the new pickup spot. Travelers wait in similarly long lines — or go rogue, jumping onto random courtesy shuttles or walking away to summon rides elsewhere in the neighborhood.

LAX officials have apologized for the long delays, which they described as “unacceptable,” and on Monday night the airport announced that it will expand the “LAXit” pickup area in hopes of alleviating the problem. The expansion will take effect early Wednesday.

For some businesses, the chaos is creating burdens. For others, it presents opportunity.

Sunday nights are a peak time for LAX pickups, and this week’s — the first since the airport debuted its new system, which prohibits taxis and ride-hailing services from meeting passengers at the terminals — did not go smoothly.

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Driving to the pickup lot from the nearby taxi waiting area took more than an hour, said Simon Momennasab, general manager for Bell Cab. Walking, he said, would have taken about five.

Lyft driver Ben Valdez had a similar experience. “It was horrendous,” he said. “The only time I’ve had to deal with traffic like that is on Thanksgiving.”

Lyft raised prices and kicked in subsidies to encourage drivers not to abandon the airport. Valdez said that one of his riders spent about $42 on a four-mile trip and that Lyft sweetened the deal, paying him $57.90.

LAX is using traffic officers to try to control the congestion and has also been in constant communication with ride-hailing companies about operations at the pickup lot, said Michael Christensen, deputy executive director for operations and maintenance at LAX.

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For example, he said, airport and Lyft officials spoke about once every 30 minutes during the busiest parts of Sunday night.

Uber said in a statement that it is “working with LAX to resolve some of the early issues for riders who saw increased wait times during the first Sunday” of the new system.

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Long lines form as people wait to catch a ride with Uber in a pickup area called “LAXit” at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Travelers, meanwhile, got antsy. Some gave up on rides they had hailed, choosing instead to leave the pickup lot, walk to less congested areas and request a new Lyft or Uber ride from there.

A small crowd of them congregated outside the nearby Hyatt Regency hotel Sunday night, luggage in tow. A hotel spokeswoman said Monday that there hadn’t been any complaints from hotel guests.

Some travelers don’t even bother trying their luck at the pickup lot and instead hop on courtesy shuttles that take people to private parking lots and car rental companies just to escape the airport. Many of those services have been overwhelmed by freeloaders catching rides.

Sal Chawla, vice president of operations at L&R Group of Companies, which runs three private parking lots near LAX — Joe’s Airport Parking, WallyPark and Airport Center — said their parking sites and shuttle services have been severely affected.

Use of the shuttle services at all three lots has doubled in the last week and tripled on Friday and Sunday, Chawla said.

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The company operates in 15 airport markets across the country, but Chawla said he has “never seen anything like this.”

Travelers are “taking any parking or hotel shuttles just trying to get out of the airport,” Chawla said, and then they get off, walk to the side of the street and hop into an Uber or Lyft.

The problem is so bad the company is having its drivers ask to see the tickets customers receive at the parking facility as proof to allow them to ride shuttles.

“We can’t carry all these ride-share riders. Our businesses can’t sustain transporting passengers that aren’t ours and take on that liability,” Chawla said.

What’s more, the ride-hailing passengers are taking capacity away from paying customers, said Ed Pomponio, the company’s head of transportation.

Still, Chawla said there could be opportunity for private lot operators like his.

“Why would you deal with that nightmare? Why wouldn’t you just park at the airport, at a lot like WallyPark, and get dropped off from curb to curb by a shuttle. You go straight back to your car: I couldn’t imagine anything better,” Chawla said.

Limousine and livery services, which can still pick up riders at LAX terminals, are jumping at the chance to entice new customers. “It’s a curbside party at LAX,” an email from LA Private Car Service crowed. “Uber + Lyft are not invited!”

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SuperShuttle said it has picked up about 100 to 200 more passengers a day since LAX’s new policy took effect, a “noticeable uptick” compared with the same time last year.

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Kristina Hope of Cleveland was among those stuck in long lines at the “LAXit” site on Monday.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

Adam Fowler heard about the change in policy and booked a room at a nearby Marriott hotel instead of downtown like he usually does for his work trips to Los Angeles from Atlanta. “This time is unique because I’ve never walked a mile to a hotel from an airport, especially not when I can bill my company for the ride,” said Fowler, 36, as he headed down Century Boulevard, pulling his suitcase.

In an attempt to improve the traffic snarl, LAX will expand the pickup area starting at 3 a.m. Wednesday, increasing the space for cars and people in the lot by roughly half, airport officials said.

Lyft’s cars will move into the expanded area, and Uber will take over Lyft’s former area in the original lot. Taxis will also have additional space to load passengers, officials said.

Airport officials said Monday in a statement that the expansion was a “pre-planned contingency to allow quick response to changed traffic patterns and behaviors.” The hope, they said, is that the changes will allow Uber and Lyft to “more consistently supply cars and drivers.”

Before the new system launched, Uber officials warned that the lot did not have enough capacity and could cause long lines and traffic jams.

Uber, Lyft and taxi pickups were banned from the curb to address the infamous congestion in the horseshoe-shaped terminal roadway.

The move was necessary, the airport said, because an increase in passenger travel and two major construction projects — an overhaul of the aging airport, and the construction of an airport train — will cause significant curb and lane closures.

On the first Sunday evening of the new system, airport officials said they observed “significant improvement” in the traffic in the terminal area and on surrounding roadways compared to the previous week, despite a slight increase in passenger travel.

The pickup system will remain in place until LAX finishes building the elevated airport train, known as a people-mover, which is scheduled to open in 2023. It will arrive every two minutes and will whisk passengers between the terminals, a car rental facility, a ground transportation hub and a Metro station.

Times staffers Rachel Schnalzer, Seth Liss and Mark Potts contributed to this report.


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