A month into the new arrangement, complaints from drivers include damaged tires, long wait times to pick up passengers and minimal restroom access.
It seems so simple: A passenger fresh off a flight taps a smartphone screen a few times; a driver waiting nearby pulls up and whisks them to their destination.
But at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, bringing Uber and other app-based ride services into the fold has been a complicated endeavor, baring tensions among drivers, passengers, the Port of Seattle and the ride companies.
As independent contractors, drivers land in the center of the tangle. That leaves Uber, which has opposed driver unions, as the contractors’ advocate in talks with the Port.
Meanwhile, airline passengers just want a cheap ride home.
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“The No. 1 reason I was really happy about this was it’s so much cheaper than cabs. It’s maybe two-thirds of the price,” said Chip Locke, a Microsoft employee who ordered an Uber in mid-April after a trip to Montreal. To hail a cab to his home in Bellevue’s Crossroads area, “it’s, like, 55-60 bucks, and Uber is 40-45 bucks per trip and no tip required.”
Clearly, there is a demand. In April, the first full month app-based ride services could pick up airport passengers, their drivers took 39,200 trips from the airport. Taxis counted 69,671 trips, an 11 percent drop from the previous month and about 7 percent lower than April 2015 figures.
Until recently, Uber and Lyft drivers could drop off passengers at the airport, but not pick them up. That meant leaving Sea-Tac without a fare.
After negotiating for months with the ride-service companies, the Port cleared a satellite parking lot where drivers could wait for a turn to pick someone up.
But for some Uber drivers, the dawn of the passenger-pickup era fell flat.
About a week in, drivers noticed nails strewn across the parking lot — and stuck in their tires. Rumors swirled about sabotage from competitors in the taxicab industry, which operates in the next lot over.
Port of Seattle police investigated and watched footage from two security cameras but “don’t see anything nefarious,” said Perry Cooper, a Sea-Tac airport spokesman.
“It may have just been an accident,” Cooper said. “There’s been construction activity out in the area. Potentially, something may have fallen off a truck.”
Amin Shifow, general manager of cab company Seattle Yellow Cab, also suspected construction — not competition — caused the problem.
“Our drivers are behaving quite well,” he said. “The (Uber and Yellow Cab) drivers were hugging each other the first day.”
Buying two new tires cost $286 for Abdiaziz Barre, who drives on the weekends and studies for his medical boards during the week. He said some drivers had to replace all four tires, which cost a substantial sum for those who say they’re struggling to get by.
Uber initially told drivers it couldn’t reimburse them for the damaged tires, but then changed its tune.
“After hearing from many drivers, this was something that was a pattern,” Uber spokesman Michael Amodeo said. “We realized there were steps we needed to take to make drivers whole in that respect … clearly, if it happens to you as a driver partner, this affects your livelihood.”
Tire problems haven’t been the end of it. While Barre was compiling a list of about 25 Uber drivers who said their tires had been damaged, he heard a barrage of other complaints: long wait times to pick up passengers; minimal restroom access; and a squeeze from UberPOOL, a ride-sharing program the company launched.
Despite the early hiccups, spokesmen for both Uber and the Port said the partnership, which is in a one-year trial, is working well. Each says they’re working to make things run smoother.
“We’re just a month into it,” Cooper said. “They’re working on things they need to adjust. It’s still a learning process from both sides.”
“Not a compromise”
On a Thursday afternoon in April, about 75 drivers were milling around the parking lot. Some chatted with friends. Others grabbed a bite to eat in their cars. Some wiped down their rides. All were hoping to see a ride request buzz on their Uber apps as they waited their turns in a virtual queue.
Many drivers said they wait an average of an hour for each airport pickup. When a ride to downtown Seattle grosses about $25-$30, before Uber’s cut and the cost of gas, that’s a hard margin, they said.
Still, some drivers said they’re willing to take their chances for a long fare from a single passenger.
Shortly after starting airport service, Uber rolled out ride pooling, which allows passengers to share an Uber for a discounted price. UberPOOL is designed so drivers spend more time collecting on fares because passengers are more frequently onboard, Amodeo said. But some drivers dislike pooling’s frequent pickups and short trips, Barre said.
“Downtown, you’ll be making $1, $2, $3 … that’s even cheaper than Metro,” he said. “It’s not really worth your time, so you come here waiting to get a long trip.”
Cooper, the airport spokesman, said the Port didn’t construct the satellite lot with long waits in mind.
“It’s a waiting lot based on when need arises,” he said. “ … Quite honestly, if someone is waiting for an hour and a half, there’s the potential those folks go other places. Perhaps they should be out there servicing other areas of the community if they’re waiting an hour and a half.”
That’s why the lot offers only three port-a-potties for drivers to use while they wait, he said. Drivers say that’s not sufficient for hand-washing. Muslim drivers are uniquely affected, since Islamic rituals require washing before prayer.
“We need bathrooms. That [port-a-potty] is not a compromise. A bathroom ought to have water,” contract-driver Abdiqani Omar said.
Drivers must be inside the lot for the Uber app to allow them to pick people up from the airport. Leaving to find a full-service bathroom means losing their place in line.
Yellow Cabdrivers, meanwhile, have their own restroom and break facility on Port property. Cooper said that’s because they’re expected to wait longer due to a contract that requires them to pick up customers within five minutes.
Uber’s contract has no such requirement. Lyft has a contract similar to Uber’s, but most drivers told the Times they primarily drive for Uber. That leaves Uber as the player best positioned to push the Port to better accommodate its drivers’ requests.
“Frankly, they’re probably tired of hearing from us. We don’t have the ability to enact those changes at the airport. Only the Port has the authority or agency to do that. We hope they’ll do so,” Uber spokesman Amodeo said of the bathrooms.
Those complaints aside, some drivers are particularly happy about the parking lot.
“It’s been a problem to get drivers organized. We don’t have a common workplace. We don’t see enough of each other,” said Don Creery, who is among those trying to form a contract drivers union.
Creery said he used to hang out at the Brown Bear Car Wash, outside of mosques and at Starbucks to recruit drivers in person. Now, he’s spending time at the airport.
“Having access to a large group of drivers will be very helpful for us organizing.”