Jeffrey Blanton avoids picking up Uber and Lyft passengers at Los Angeles International Airport at all costs. Some seafarers, he says, would circle the grassy terminal roads, hoping that high demand for rides would economically offset the wait.
Not Blanton. He runs about 30 hours a week and would never volunteer to camp at the dreaded airport. An hour-long wait to pick up a rider means an hour without compensation – a waste, in his opinion, of time and money.
"I know I'm in the minority of drivers who think that way," he tells me. "But it all boils down to how much I'm going to generate per hour."
Blanton, who has been driving passengers since July of last year, only ever comes to LAX if someone asks to be dropped there, which happens about 1
Leadership # 1: How can we fly to LAX even more miserably?
Leadership # 2: Ban Uber and Lyft so travelers get stranded. Forever.
Both: * slowly breaking into evil laughter * pic.twitter.com/oy073rLag1
– Dylan (@dyllyp) October 29, 2019
Ride sharing platforms have drastically changed how travelers get picked up at airports – for better and for worse. Over the past decade, on-demand services such as Lyft and Uber have reduced the need for taxis, while contributing to congestion in already overcrowded hubs, which is being stifled by the constant influx of cars. It's not just the fault with these services: Flights are at a high level, and infrastructurally, airports are not equipped to handle it.
Airlines carried 4.3 billion passengers around the world in 2018, an increase of 38 million compared to the previous year. Most US airports are not designed to handle the huge amount they currently attract; the last major US international airport (Denver International) was built more than two decades ago.
In a cycle of congestion, airports are looking to divert traffic sharing from primary pickup zones, traditionally serving private vehicles that fetch friends or family and the occasional black car.
In theory, traffic diversion seems a viable solution to the airport's age-old congestion problem, which has only worsened as more and more travelers rely on ride-sharing apps. The reality on the ground is that change can be chaotic – and complicated – even for what seems to be a necessary solution.
Airports divert ride-sharing traffic from the terminals to cope with congestion.
"We have grown by millions of passengers, but we have not added a foot to the curb," said Dan Gallagher, aviation business and finance director at Boston Logan International Airport.
In June, San Francisco International moved all pick-hail pickups to the top floor of a parking garage, creating confusion, longer waiting times and high season backups.
LAX rolled out a similar plan on October 29, requiring travelers to drive a shuttle bus to a separate pickup lot for ride-sharing vehicles and taxis. Boston Logan also reserved a pickup area for Ubers and Lifts in the central parking garage, which will expand to passengers arriving from all terminals by next week.
29. In October, the first day of LAX's change (called LAXit, similar to Brexit), the Los Angeles Times reported that it took travelers an average of 10 minutes to wait, board and ride the shuttle bus to the ride-sharing pickup lot.
Add another eight minutes to get a cab or an average of 18 minutes for travelers getting an Uber or Lift. (People have disputed the average wait of 18 minutes on Twitter, and some said it took about an hour to reach their cars.)
Not sure where to get your numbers from. Something that used to take me 5 minutes for me 57 today. Have a friend who went to LAX today said it was a mess. My UBER driver said he will not return to LAX. Nice work
– Matt Estrada (@ MattEstrada1) October 29, 2019
It may not sound like a major inconvenience, but all hell broke loose: Drivers were confused about the new system, disabled travelers criticized LAX for its lack of accessibility and people mumbled about gridlock and waiting on social media.
Some travelers encouraged others to to take a shuttle bus to the hotels from the departure level and call a car from there to avoid traffic. And while the airport apologized for the "unacceptable level of service" during the transition week, the future of pickup seats is likely to be more time-consuming across the board.
Airports have long anticipated lung problems, but finding a solution takes time.
"People will have to understand that as airports get busier and busier, they will become less convenient, especially the larger airports," said William Rankin, a professor at Florida Tech University with 29 years of airport management experience.
So why did airports wait so long to implement these changes, years after recognizing where congestion is a problem?
"Maybe they will keep it as practical as possible for as long as possible," Rankin suggests. Bureaucratic teams with approval and fine-tuning of a plan can take about two or three years before a policy can be implemented, he adds.
Such is the case in San Francisco International, which planned to remove 45 percent of ride-sharing cars from its terminal roads in 2017. SFO was one of the first airports licensed with Uber and Lyft in 2014, demanding that companies pay certain fees for operating nearby.
It was only at the end of 2017 that the airport began investigating the traffic stop," spokesman Doug Yakel said. "The metric was an average speed of 15 miles per hour, but in peak periods it fell below 10 miles on average, which really means gridlock," he tells me.
The airport went through several phases of diverting the drive – sharing traffic to a mixed-use parking garage, which was about five minutes walk from the terminals. Only Uber and Lyft pools (shared rides) were affected when the plan rolled out in the summer of 2018, but when SFO did not reach its 45 percent diversion target, it required that all shared ride vehicles use the garage in June.  Uber was not happy with the change, and even tried to get drivers to protest the change. "Through our discussions with Uber and Lyft, it was understood that if we failed to divert traffic, we would move all vehicles to the parking garage," Yakel adds.
However, months after the transition has been in place, complaints from travelers have been smoothed out and the airport has improved the flow of vehicles to the new pickup area.
Similarly, Boston Logan has moved pickups – and eventually deliveries – to a central parking garage in October. This currently only affects travelers coming from terminals A and C, but will affect all terminals within the next week.
Tara von Fridrich, a Boston-based Uber driver, tells me that she usually waits for about an hour in Uber's airport queue to be assigned a passenger and pick them up. She is optimistic that the new pickup area can speed things up, but "there was a lot of backed up traffic" the first day.
Later that week, von Fridrich noticed that she was matched with riders faster than she would expect in traffic at the regular terminals. "I keep my fingers crossed as they roll out in recent weeks, it will be better for drivers," she says.
Gallagher states that Boston Logan was strategic in its rollout of the changes. "We want to fine-tune and change as we move forward to turn a switch all at once and not be able to handle it all the first day," he says.
The evolution of the situation in Los Angeles is a unique nightmare. To be unaware of travelers and drivers, LAX's pickup policy seemed to change overnight. And while passengers in San Francisco or Boston Logan can go to their pickup destinations, at LAX they have to wait for a bus to transport them to a location about ten minutes from the terminals.
While the airport said there was an increase in taxi pickup, some travelers say it took around 40 minutes to hail one.
"People saw the mass of people waiting for a ride and decided to try the taxi line since it seemed less confusing," said Mike Eshelman, a manager who frequently flies to and from LAX. There was no canopy to shield waiting passengers from the sun or rain, and very few openings if thousands of people needed to evacuate the area immediately.
A spokesman for Uber says the company is working with the airport to solve some of the early problems for riders in the early days of LAXit: “We continue to monitor the new pickup operation and look forward to continuing to work closely with LAX for providing a positive customer experience. “Lyft has not responded to a request for comment from Vox.
Despite the many complaints the airport has received, LAX is unlikely to bring back on-street collection. Terminal roads, especially in crowded international hubs, have become too congested, and some airports do not have room to expand massively.
Currently, it seems like a manageable solution several airports are considering diverting traffic-sharing traffic to parking garages or side buildings. Whether it will be a long-term sustainable plan depends on a number of factors: whether an airport expands the roads, the influx of travelers during peak seasons, and whether people are still flying at increasing speed.
In any case, we probably hear directly from travelers whether the plan for an airport is successful or not. As LAX has witnessed this week, there is nothing like the collective rage of stranded travelers trying to escape from the airport.
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