The freaky economics of a ride to Sea-Tac Airport

Because of fuel prices and out-of-sync regulatory bodies, it's actually cheaper right now to take a taxicab to or from Sea-Tac Airport than a shared van, which until recently was always the cheaper choice. But cab fares, too, will be going up, on Oct. 1. Here's how airport transportation pricing works.
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(<a href=''>Shea Hazarian</a> / Creative Commons)

Because of fuel prices and out-of-sync regulatory bodies, it's actually cheaper right now to take a taxicab to or from Sea-Tac Airport than a shared van, which until recently was always the cheaper choice. But cab fares, too, will be going up, on Oct. 1. Here's how airport transportation pricing works.

Not so long ago, air travelers could save a few pennies by booking a van instead of taking a cab to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. No more. Shuttle Express, with an exclusive Port of Seattle contract to provide door-to-door van service, now charges $38 for pickups in many Seattle neighborhoods, from Green Lake to Rainier Valley.

By contrast, a typical metered fare to Sea-Tac Airport in a Seattle-licensed cab costs about $35.

The topsy turvy pricing reflects differing regulatory worlds. Shuttle Express has ratcheted up rates by petitioning the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, which has granted base-rate increases four times since 2002 and has agreed to extend or raise fuel surcharges 53 times in the past several years, records show.

Seattle cabs, meanwhile, have been stalled at the same meter rate since 2005, though a new pricing scheme is set to take effect Oct. 1. Even then, though, cabs could remain the cheaper choice, particularly if there is more than one person traveling, because additional fares for extra passengers can add up with Shuttle Express.

Meantime, Shuttle Express president Jim Sherrell recently expressed surprise at the relative pricing, saying, "We really watch cab prices and try to stay below that."

He reckoned that about 80 percent of the roughly 700,000 passengers Shuttle Express carries each year are heading to or coming from Sea-Tac. Last year, the Port of Seattle tallied nearly 172,000 outbound trips by Shuttle Express vans, which typically can carry up to 10 passengers.

The Seattle-Tacoma International Taxi Association (STITA), which has an exclusive contract to pick up passengers at Sea-Tac, made more than 730,000 outbound trips last year. Another 158,000 were made my "belled-in" taxis, meaning the Port called in other cab companies when there weren't enough STITA cabs to handle demand.

Outbound trips200520062007Courtesy vans1,324,0051,260,0941,140,101STITA taxis639,751648,275732,694Door-to-door service156,013168,151171,668Belled-in taxis114,354139,355158,342Pre-arranged limo53,50653,85362,050Scheduled airporters36,27928,05031,657On-call limo32,26334,45527,165Charter bus dispatch6,5266,2586,687TOTAL2,362,6972,338,4912,330,364

One advantage to riding Shuttle Express, said Sherrell, is that his company guarantees to pay the difference between your airfare and a replacement ticket should you miss your flight "because we messed up." The guarantee is contingent on passengers agreeing to board a Shuttle Express van that aims to get them to the airport 2 hours before their flight.

Cab rides can be risky, of course, in the sense that you can't always count on a taxi to show up. In addition, the vicissitudes of Puget Sound traffic and taxi meter math mean you could be standing still while the fare runs up.

A downside to Shuttle Express is the extra cost for additional passengers traveling in the same party. The same Shuttle Express to Sea-Tac that costs $38 for one person can cost $55 for four, though kids 12 and under ride free with a paying adult. By contrast, Yellow Cab charges nothing extra for a second passenger and only 50 cents extra per additional passenger after the first two, according to Craig Leisy, a consumer affairs manager with the city.

Passengers pay less to Sea-Tac to ride cabs or vans if they board within defined areas, such as certain hotels that Shuttle Express serves, or a downtown "flat rate" zone for cabs. For that matter, one can ride Grayline's Downtown Airporter bus, which leaves every half hour from major hotels, for $11.

Four years ago, a Shuttle Express ride to Sea-Tac from Queen Anne, Renton Highlands, Eastlake, West Seattle, Georgetown, Madison Park, Rainier Beach, Mount Baker, and Capitol Hill cost $23 for a solo passenger. This year the same ride costs $38, a 65 percent increase.

Asked for a breakdown of the current typical $38 fare from Seattle, the company cited a base rate of $31, a $2 fuel surcharge, and a "Port charge" of $5. However, Port spokesman Perry Cooper said Shuttle Express is obliged to pay the Port only a $2.78 fee per outgoing trip, not per passenger. Shuttle Express officials later acknowledged that the $5 "Port charge" is also used to cover other expenses.

Revenue200520062007STITA taxis$2,052,151$2,065,701$2,324,418Courtesy vans$1,203,918$1,262,990$1,250,760Door-to-door service$250,835$246,520$225,960Pre-arranged limo$170,220$193,430$211,094Scheduled airporters$143,858$149,779$159,852Charter bus dispatch$101,837$98,771$98,412On-call limo$101,694$108,306$70,794Belled-in taxis$16,380$29,520$33,571Parcel carriers$9,200$8,000$200TOTAL$4,050,093$4,163,017$4,375,061

Still, cabs are about to become more expensive. As of Oct. 1, new rates will take effect for the 643 taxis licensed by the City of Seattle.

Another 199 cabs are licensed by King County (including 166 STITA taxis). The county is in the process of passing an ordinance to make its rates the same as the city's, Leisy said.

The city's new rates will raise the distance charge portion of the taxi meter rate from $2 to $2.50 per mile.

The hike means that the roughly 15-mile journey from Seattle to the airport will cost about $7 more. Also, the city-authorized "fuel surcharge" — which has always been unwieldy because it rested on placards displayed in the cab instead of being built into the rate — has been recalibrated.

It won't kick in until the price of fuel hits $5 a gallon, Leisy said. Also starting Oct. 1, the downtown flat rate will jump to $32 from $28.

Further down the road, Sound Transit will offer rail service to Sea-Tac. Spokesman Bruce Gray said such service should be available by December 2009, with passengers able to board at all downtown Seattle transit stops.

Gray said service would be available 20 hours a day, seven days week, with more frequent service on weekdays. But he declined to offer even a range for the potential fare to Sea-Tac Airport, saying only that Sound Transit staff has been directed by the board "to keep costs comparable to local and regional bus services."

A check of Metro Transit's bus service to Sea-Tac shows fares at less than $3 from central Seattle neighborhoods, but those routes generally involve transfers and take an hour or more. From downtown Seattle, the bus fare is $1.50 and takes 45 minutes or less. A Sound Transit light-rail ride from the Westlake station of the Downtown Transit Tunnel to Sea-Tac is expected to take 36 minutes, Gray said.

Asked how many passengers are projected to board Sound Transit to Sea-Tac, Gray could provide only dated information. In an e-mail to Crosscut, he wrote:

As for ridership, we're expecting around 6,200 daily boardings/deboardings at Airport Station by 2020. That's the total number our early project development estimates put together. We believe that's a very conservative estimate given the escalation in gas prices and worsening congestion since those numbers were developed in the late '90s, early 2000s.


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