Wednesday, July 13, 2011

‘Fighting for a fare’

Proposed airport regulations go too far, drivers say

Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Limo driver Bill Yost, left, waits for arriving passengers at Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey with Wood River Taxi driver Amos Amero. Yost’s uniform may pass muster under proposed airport regulations, but other drivers may risk suspension for appearing less than well-groomed. Photo by Willy Cook

For many travelers, the first person they make contact with in a new city is the driver of an airport taxi.

Whether the driver is surly or courteous can make or break the visitor's first impression of a town, and airport Manager Rick Baird said he's heard customer complaints about the standard of customer service being provided by airport cabbies.

"Most of the companies are doing a great job, but there are some who are not operating to the standard we'd like to see," Baird said.

During last week's meeting of the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority, Baird released a proposed amendment to the airport regulations that govern taxi drivers.

The new regulations would require stricter dress and vehicle appearance codes and forbid drivers from entering the terminal unless given advance written permission by Baird himself.

The regulations also give Baird the power to suspend drivers who don't adhere to the proposed code.

"The myth that's in the driver world right now is that drivers don't have to adhere to the regulation because it has no teeth," Baird said. "This changes some of the ways we do business out here."

The proposed regulations were greeted with enthusiasm by most members of the authority board, who said they worried about the impression the drivers give new visitors.

Hailey City Councilwoman and board member Martha Burke said she had been essentially "assaulted" by drivers who were fighting over her fare, and board member Susan McBryant said the new regulations would bring Friedman's taxi drivers up to the same standard that is present at other airports.

"I think we need to do it the way it's done elsewhere," she said.

Taxi drivers, however, are vehemently protesting the proposed regulations, saying the airport is being too strict when it comes to limiting access to the terminal and customer contact.

Otis Mills, a driver for Cornwell Limo Service, said the job is tough enough already without the airport cracking down.

"We're just out here, fighting for a fare, trying to make a living, and the airport is making it harder and harder," he said. "The airport is god out here, and we have to do everything their way."

Drivers are currently prohibited from using the restrooms at the terminal, a problem that Sun Valley Limo owner Kirk Lindsey said can cause animosity and increase competition among drivers over fares.

"You'll undercut [another driver] just to make a couple of bucks and stop to go to the bathroom after you drop the customers off," he said. "It's ridiculous."

Drivers are not allowed in the terminal because some were approaching customers and soliciting rides, Baird said, adding that solicitation is the top taxi-related complaint he hears from customers.

Mills admitted there's a balance to be struck when approaching potential customers.

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"We shouldn't be able to scream at people, but if they approach us and [seem to] need a taxi, we should be able to ask them," Mills said. "If you don't say anything, they'll walk right by you."

Both Mills and Lindsey said they do not solicit inside the terminal and that they knew of only one driver who did.

Lindsey said the proposed regulation prohibiting drivers from speaking first when dealing with potential customers is ambiguous and may go too far.

"You make eye contact with people and they will walk right over to you," he said. "But when can I say hi? There's a gray area there."

Board member and Blaine County Commissioner Larry Schoen said during the meeting that he worried the new regulations would limit the drivers' ability to represent Sun Valley as a tourist-friendly town.

"[This] precludes them from saying hello, just saying, 'Welcome to Sun Valley,'" he said. "I am a little troubled by what's in here."

However, one of the main goals of the regulations is actually to help the drivers better reflect Sun Valley for first-time visitors, Baird said.

"They are the first and last impression for many people who arrive in the valley," he said.

Lindsey said he's well aware that he and his drivers are representatives of Sun Valley, and that he only hires courteous and clean-cut drivers for that reason.

"I've become successful by having a great reputation, being reliable, dependable and safe," he said. "That image is very important to me."

Lindsey requires all of his drivers to dress in matching Hawaiian shirts, in accordance with the airport dress code.

The new regulations heighten that dress code even further, requiring collared shirts that identify the driver's employer, closed-toe shoes with socks and casual dress pants or dress shorts—all of which must be clean, intact and wrinkle-free.

This would make a change for Mills, who works in a T-shirt, though he said his employer prefers drivers wear polo shirts and avoid flip-flops. Mills is not the only one who dresses in this manner, which Baird said is the de facto uniform the airport is trying to discourage.

"We don't think shorts and a muscle shirt is appropriate when they're picking up people who are getting their first taste of the valley," Baird said. "I'm not looking to see a military-type dress, but what we're trying to say is that drivers should be well-groomed."

A public hearing on the proposed regulations will be held during the authority's meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 4, at the Old Courthouse in Hailey. Baird said he expects a positive public response.

"I think the reactions of the public make it clear this is needed," he said.

Katherine Wutz:

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