The high cost of an empty taxicab

Taxis traveling between Sea-Tac Airport and Seattle without passengers mean less revenue for the cabs, and fuel burned senselessly. Solving the problem would require coordinated policy changes by city officials, the mayor, and the Port of Seattle, and it's not clear that will happen anytime soon.
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Running on empty? (Peter Lewis)

Taxis traveling between Sea-Tac Airport and Seattle without passengers mean less revenue for the cabs, and fuel burned senselessly. Solving the problem would require coordinated policy changes by city officials, the mayor, and the Port of Seattle, and it's not clear that will happen anytime soon.

For more than a decade, Seattle officials have been pushing the Port of Seattle to help curb what many regard as a silly anachronism: Cabs that collectively travel more than 13 million miles a year empty in one direction or the other between Seattle and the airport.

Now that gas costs $4 per gallon, our roads are more congested than ever, and everyone seems more attuned to global warming, is it possible that a regional approach to end "deadheading" is in the offing?


There are some encouraging signs that the Port is serious about rethinking Sea-Tac's taxi system, including renewed talks between city and port staffers, as well as commitments from the mayor's office, city council members, and Port commissioners to work toward a solution.

But don't expect anything dramatic in the way of reform until 2010, when the Port's current contract with STITA — the taxi association that since 1989 has held exclusive rights to carry passengers away from the airport — expires.

Conversely, city officials aren't itching to grant STITA cabs authority to pick up passengers inside Seattle until city cabs get a regular piece of the relatively lucrative action at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. As a result, the vast majority of the roughly 1 million taxi trips between Seattle and Sea-Tac each year will continue to carry passengers in only one direction.

But what may finally force the Port to open up SeaTac to competition — and help forge a regional licensing system — is that STITA increasingly can't keep up with growing passenger volumes.

Numbers help tell the story: Over the past eight years, the size of STITA's fleet has remained stable at 166. During that same period, the number of STITA trips departing Sea-Tac has doubled, to more than 730,000.

Of those, roughly two thirds are to Seattle. And assuming that a like number of city cabs travel back from Sea-Tac empty, that adds up to more than 13 million miles worth of deadheading. In addition to those trips, last year alone, the Port "belled in" (a rather quaint term reminiscent of bell hops) more than 158,000 non-STITA cabs to satisfy demand that STITA couldn't meet, records show.

Mark Reis, the Port's managing director of Sea-Tac, said STITA has wanted "to just buy more taxis and add to their fleet, to avoid giving other people the opportunity to pick up those fares."

But the Port has resisted that effort, he said, in part because with only two years left on the STITA contract, the Port wants to keep the door open to competition; building up STITA's fleet could undermine that option. Interestingly, the Port has also decided to get more proactive about calling in non-STITA cabs.

Up until very recently, the Port would wait until STITA couldn't meet demand before "belling in" outside cabs. But effective Sept. 14, the Port started calling in non-STITA cabs on a regular basis on Sunday evenings. Into the foreseeable future, Orange, Yellow, and Far West taxis will now join queued STITA cabs to pick up fares.

The Port maintains it's free to do this, Reis said, because of a contract provision "that allows us to fill demand they're not meeting." Sundays were chosen because of heavy loads of business people arriving for work-week meetings, area residents returning from vacations, and the fact that some STITA cabs take part of Sunday off.

Moreover, Reis didn't rule out the possibility that the Port might expand the program to satisfy unmet passenger demand on other days or times if necessary. Reis said the Port prefers that non-STITA cabs arriving at Sea-Tac on Sundays carry passengers, but he admitted the Port doesn't know if that's actually happening.

And that gets us to a central point. Like several others familiar with the cab industry that were contacted for this story, Reis notes that opening up Sea-Tac to competition — and forming a three-way licensing system with the Port, King County, and Seattle — won't be enough to kill deadheading.

"Whatever we do as policy makers," he said, "we have to fundamentally overcome the reality that the marketplace is going to drive cabs back to Sea-Tac no matter what, because that's where they're going to make the most money."

Without doubt, STITA cabs earn more money than their counterparts thanks to the steady, fat fares at Sea-Tac. Craig Leisy, Seattle's manager of consumer affairs, who has studied the local cab industry for years, estimates they earn three times as much as city cabs.

Sheila Stickel, a PR consultant hired to speak for STITA, opposes opening Sea-Tac to others. She contends that would ruin accountability, a point hotly contested by city officials and cab company competitors.

But they acknowledge she is onto something when she says cab drivers are like "little kids playing a soccer game — they go where the action is. And (Sea-Tac) is where the customers are."

Frank Dowgwilla, general manager of Yellow taxi, said that to solve the deadheading problem, authorities will have to move beyond regional licensing and devise a mechanism of some sort that entices drivers to stick around to pick up passengers where they've made drop offs. He suggested forming separate, priority queues for drivers willing to wait for return fares.

Reis noted the Port had good reason for initially forming STITA. A former port commissioner, Jack Block, once described the cab situation at Sea-Tac as a "zoo" with wide variation in the quality and condition of cabs, as well as the training and appearance of drivers.

For a time, STITA stood heads and shoulders above city cabs in terms of the condition of city cabs. But all parties acknowledge that gap has been closed, and in some respects city cab driver training now surpasses STITA's, according to Leisy.

A few months ago, Leisy helped craft a proposal the city submitted to the Port to designate a couple of three-minute taxicab stands on the upper drive. That would let dual-licensed taxicabs (those with city and county licenses) that drop off passengers at the ticket counter level to try to catch a return trip.

But in a recent interview, Reis said the Port probably cannot manage that under its contract with STITA.

Still, there are overarching calls for something substantive down the line. Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis said the city is motivated to address deadheading, consistent with his boss's pledge to build a "green" taxi fleet and get away from gas guzzlers.

That's similar to the direction the Port has moved STITA. Its fleet is now made up of hybrids and converted vehicles that burn compressed natural gas, though there have been mounting struggles with conversion, along with a lack of filling stations, not to mention that Priuses sometimes lack sufficient trunk space for luggage.

In the meantime, Seattle City Council Member Jean Godden recently shepherded through a unanimously adopted ordinance aimed at expediting the death of deadheading. She called such reform "long overdue."

In a recent newsletter that alluded to deadheading, Council President Richard Conlin also noted ongoing talks with the Port "to eliminate arcane regulations."

And Port Commissioner Gael Tarleton called the deadheading issue a "common area of interest" with the city. "We both have the same view — we want to save fuel and best serve all our travelers and users," she said. Another issue the Port may need to grapple with if taxi competition comes to Sea-Tac will be creating a larger holding area for cabs, she added.

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  
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  

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