In a well-run city, getting to and from one of the world’s busiest airports would not be a nightmare.
The rail line to the airport would extend all the way to — oh, I don’t know, the airport?
But in Los Angeles, after three decades of planning improvements, we’re not there yet.
If you have any doubts, just consider the transition in the last week from curbside pickup by taxis and ride-hailing companies to a remote pickup location. There was plenty of time to plan and execute the move well, but instead we got chaos. Traffic jams, bewildered travelers, and unsatisfying apologies from LAX officials.
Relief is on the way, we’re told. A bit of relief, anyway, when the LAXit pickup area is expanded early Wednesday. Even then, don’t expect that to be a LAXitive for stopped-up traffic. Drivers report it’s taking them longer to travel the six blocks from the holding pen to the pickup location than it takes for jets to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles.
And guess what?
High rollers are not feeling the pain. If you can afford to call for a limo at Los Angeles International Airport, you can still walk out of your terminal like a a celebrity, get curbside pickup and be whisked away in comfort. No shuttle or schlep to the pickup corral. No wasted time. No sweat.
As if we needed to make the gap even wider in L.A., where the truly elite don’t even bother to compete with the hoi polloi. At LAX, it’s not just the limos. A-listers can breeze over to the south-side Private Suite terminal, which I visited two years ago to make sure it existed. Membership fees are $4,500, and an additional $2,700 each time you use the service, which includes a concierge doctor on call in case you scuff a fingernail opening your champagne while waiting for your flight.
But hey, aren’t some of the rest of us getting a little spoiled too?
We have one or maybe two ride-hailing apps on our phones.
We’re too lazy to walk, so now we ride scooters.
We’re too impatient to get stuck in traffic, so now we barrel through quiet neighborhoods with navigation apps and pay to drive the fast lanes.
We’re too busy to cook, so now we tap an app to have a burrito delivered to our door.
And we consider ourselves too good for shuttles or, God forbid, the FlyAway bus.
So now we have a billion cars a day inching their way in and out of LAX, and we’re ticked off about a problem we helped create.
And in the process, we’re propping up Uber and Lyft, whose drivers are making close to minimum wage while beating up their own vehicles and putting more of a squeeze on taxi drivers, who used to cash a decent paycheck before we all began telling one another about how much we love our ride-hailing apps.
“You’ve got Uber and Lyft in a years-long price war, where they’re using investor dollars in order to artificially suppress prices,” said William Rouse, general manager of Yellow Cab of Los Angeles.
The cab companies are at a decided disadvantage, competing not just against lower prices but against much larger fleets. Not that the cab industry was ever the best-run enterprise, with a history of run-down vehicles and meter-rigging scandals. And some cab companies were too slow to respond to the tech innovations that gave rise to the competition.
A few years ago, I became an Uber driver for a few weeks to experience it firsthand. Getting approved was a snap. I picked up 12 fares, made $12.22 an hour after subtracting the cost of gas, and did not get a single tip. Back then, one of Uber’s marketing tricks was that you didn’t need to give your driver a little something extra.
In some ways, Uber and Lyft were brilliant, and for some drivers, making a few bucks while setting their own schedules and serving as their own bosses was attractive. My son was between jobs when he drove for Uber and Lyft, which kept him afloat, just barely. But he said going to LAX was dreadful, partly because of the traffic and partly because entitled passengers blamed him for delays.
Nobody likes delays, me included. But when did we all become so special that we couldn’t handle even the slightest inconvenience?
As for the scene at LAX, Rouse said he attended meetings at which the pickup transition was planned, and he thought at the time that airport staffers were on top of things. But now he has a couple of theories on what might have gone wrong.
Either traffic engineers had inaccurate numbers about how many pickup vehicles were coming to the airport each day, or the numbers were accurate but the planners miscalculated how long it would take those cars to get to the new remote pickup points, Rouse said.
“If they started with an incorrect number of trips, that could lead someone to conclude that Uber and Lyft were underreporting trips,” Rouse said, “which would mean they were also underpaying on their airport surcharges they owe for every pickup and drop-off.”
In September, I rode from Union Station to LAX with Yellow Cab driver Oganes Papazyan, and I called him Tuesday to ask about the airport madness of the last week. He said he was trying to avoid LAX, because it had taken him more than an hour to go just a few blocks and pick up passengers.
“It’s too much stress for a lot of people. Not just us, but the biggest problems are for families with kids and luggage,” Papazyan said. “They’re complaining more than we are.”
Papazyan said he’d like to see a return to the days before Uber and Lyft had full delivery and pickup privileges at LAX, but that’s not likely to happen.
And it’s likely we’ll be stuck with some degree of chaos until 2023, when an elevated people mover is scheduled to begin tracking passengers from terminals to car rentals, a ground transportation hub and a Metro station.
In the meantime, try a ride-sharing van out of LAX, take a bus, drive your own car, or fly out of Burbank, Ontario or Long Beach, even if it means having to catch a connecting flight.
If you needed a reminder, the calendar says it’s November, and you know what that means. So does Papazyan.
“With the holidays coming — Thanksgiving and Christmas — for one or two miles around LAX, believe what I’m telling you. It’s going to be messed up.”