Taxi Drivers Strike At LAX, Demanding To Be Allowed Back To Terminals For Pickups

Los Angeles taxi drivers scheduled to work at LAX left their cabs and took to the curbs in protest on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020. (Courtesy Leon Slomovic)

Taxi drivers who were scheduled to work at Los Angeles International Airport on Monday instead went on strike, fed up with a system that they say has "decimated" their industry and demanding they be allowed once again to pick up passengers directly from the terminals.

Taxicabs were moved along with rideshare vehicles to a separate lot under a new policy enacted in late October by Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which oversees LAX. Now arriving travelers have to take a shuttle before waiting in a queue to get a ride to their final destination. The policy affects pickup services only; taxis and rideshare vehicles are still dropping off passengers at LAX's departure terminals. Still, the new system got off to a rough start.

Taxi worker representatives, along with some city leaders, are trying to reverse the decision, which they say represents a fatal blow to an industry already dramatically weakened by the rise of rideshare companies. Taxi ridership in L.A. plummeted an estimated 77% from March 2013 to November 2018, according to a city report.

About 200 drivers scheduled to work at LAX Monday morning stopped picking up passengers during the demonstration, though drivers not scheduled to work may have provided rides, according to Leon Slomovic, the president of Taxi Workers Association of Los Angeles, which represents the roughly 3,000 licensed drivers in the city.

ANGER ABOUT A 'DIRE' SITUATION

LAWA touted its "LAXit" plan as a means to reduce congestion at the infamously gridlocked airport, but also as a necessary step as the airport undergoes multi-billion-dollar modernization projects.

"LAX simply does not have the curb space to accommodate taxis or ride app vehicles within the Central Terminal Area due to the $14 billion modernization program," LAWA spokeswoman Becca Doten said in a statement. That work includes construction of the "LAX Automated People Mover," which L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti first called for back in 2014.

But Slomovic said taxis' contribution to traffic at LAX is "miniscule" compared to rideshare vehicles — and the move has taken a heavy toll on drivers.

"They're angry and they're disappointed because the situation has gotten pretty dire for them," he told LAist. Drivers' incomes "dropped by half or more last year," much of that during the final months of the year after drivers were banned from the terminals, he said.

Arriving passengers walk with their luggage as they prepare to board vehicles at the new 'LAX-it' ride-hail passenger pickup lot on November 6, 2019. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

According to 2019 LAX traffic reports from before the "LAXit" move, taxis account for about 4% of the vehicles that drive through the terminals any given month. Transportation Network Company (TNC) vehicles, as in Uber and Lyft, made up nearly a third of all LAX traffic, while private vehicles account for more than 50%, those same reports showed.

L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz introduced a motion in late October to allow taxicabs back into LAX, calling LAWA's policy "the final nail in the coffin of the taxi industry."

"Currently, LAX is the only place where taxis remain competitive due to curbside convenience, which would be eliminated," Koretz wrote in the motion.

Slomovic echoed that sentiment, calling LAX pickups "the proverbial straw that we've been hanging onto."

In the early 2010s, before Uber and Lyft, Slomovic said airport pickups represented about a third of taxi trips. Now, as rideshare companies have taken over much of that transportation real estate, many taxi drivers depend on LAX for 60-70% of their income, Slomovic said.

Taxi companies already can't compete with Uber and Lyft on the price of a ride, so the new pickup policy introduced in October has exacerbated "an unsustainable situation," Slomovic explained.

"Our prices are set by the city, which is based on cost and a livable wage," Slomovic said.

'A GOOD REASON TO PROTEST'

In a statement provided to LAist, Koretz laid it out in even starker language: "LAWA has engaged in policies for several years which are designed to wipe out the taxi industry." Koretz added that drivers "have a good reason to protest" and that customers "should be right there alongside them."

Koretz and taxi worker advocates also criticized LAWA's policy as harmful for elderly passengers and passengers with disabilities who were previously able to rely on ADA-compliant taxis to help them curbside.

Slomovic said dialogue has been opened between LAWA and local taxi industry officials, and the two parties are scheduled to meet next week for further discussion. Driver representatives also started a Change.org petition.

"All we're asking is for the passengers to have a choice that they have at [the] 20 other busiest airports in the United States," he said. "We have made a number of different suggestions on how traffic can be mitigated and how taxi cabs can be accommodated inside the airport."

Doten said LAWA held more than 20 meetings with leaders from the taxi and rideshare industries for almost a year before "LAXit" opened "to ensure that their feedback and ideas were incorporated into the design." That led to taxis receiving a "prime first curb location" at the lot, she said.

"The LAX-it system has been working smoothly and efficiently for more than nine weeks," Doten said. "LAWA executive leadership has held a number of recent meetings with taxi companies and drivers since the opening of LAX-it and has implemented some of their suggestions as part of constant improvement of the operation."

Councilman Koretz's motion was submitted to the city's Trade, Travel and Tourism Committee, but has not yet been scheduled for discussion, according to Alison Simard of the councilman's office.

A Korean Air plane lands as taxis are lined up at the new 'LAX-it' ride-hail passenger pickup lot at LAX on Nov. 6, 2019. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

UPDATES:

Tuesday, Jan. 7, 7:15 a.m.: This article was updated with a statement from Los Angeles World Airports.

This article was originally published at 2:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 6.