Plan for Uber, Lyft service at LAX clears key City Hall hurdle
The odds that Uber and Lyft will soon be fully operational at Los Angeles International Airport appear to be increasing, despite some political hesitation at City Hall and calls for tighter screening of the ride-hailing services’ drivers.
A City Council committee heard hours of testimony Tuesday from warring sides in the latest local battle over the economic disruption being caused by rapidly growing start-ups in the so-called sharing economy.
In the end, lawmakers voted 3-2 to support a policy that would allow Uber and Lyft to seek permits to pick up airport passengers, a service they currently are banned from providing.
The city’s airport commission approved such a permitting plan last month, subject to final contract negotiations with the ride services. But council members intervened in the process and chose to conduct their own review. The matter now moves to the full council, where it will be voted on later this summer.
The council will consider a series of recommendations adopted by the committee. Those include creating a simple complaint system that would be available to passengers of the ride-hailing services who take trips to or from LAX. Lawmakers also suggested the full council ask state regulators to mandate fingerprint-based background checks on Uber and Lyft drivers.
The airport is the most lucrative and closely guarded piece of the traditional taxi industry’s stronghold in Southern California. Taxi leaders have fought to keep Uber and similar companies from operating there, saying they have a competitive advantage because their drivers are held to less stringent screening standards than licensed cabbies.
Prospective Uber and Lyft drivers do not submit fingerprints as part of state-required background checks. By contrast, L.A. taxi drivers have their prints checked through federal criminal databases.
During Tuesday’s five-hour hearing, lawmakers focused on whether drivers for taxi companies and ride-hailing companies should be held to the same standards.
Uber and Lyft have argued their driver screening processes are as effective as those used for cab drivers, and fingerprint checks would be redundant.
The Times recently reported that four Uber drivers cited at LAX had criminal convictions, including manslaughter, that would have barred them from driving a taxi in Los Angeles.
Council members have expressed a desire to level the playing field for limo drivers, cabbies and their start-up counterparts at the West Coast’s largest airport. But the difficulties of accomplishing that became clearer Tuesday.
The airport’s proposed licensing agreements with Uber and Lyft, which are regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission, follow the state agency’s requirements for background checks, which do not include fingerprinting, Los Angeles World Airports Executive Director Deborah Flint said.
Uber and Lyft operate less like airport taxi services and more like shuttle or limousine companies, she said, and should be held to the state regulatory standards.
“We don’t impose additional requirements,” Flint said. “The airport has taken the position of being consistent.”
A PUC representative said the agency is considering amending its regulations to require fingerprinting as part of background checks for Uber and Lyft drivers.
Councilman Paul Krekorian expressed concern over Uber’s record of compliance, citing a California administrative law judge’s recommendation to fine the company $7.3 million for failing to provide the state required reports on its operations.
The PUC’s Denise Tyrrell told the committee that as of Monday Uber was “in full compliance” with its reporting requirements. However, she added, that does not negate the recommended penalty for past reporting problems. Uber has said it is appealing the proposed fine.
With or without tighter background checks, LAX’s pending operating rules would be among “the most restrictive agreements we’ve agreed to around the country,” said Joe Okpaku, Lyft’s director of public affairs.
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