September 22, 2013

Coast RTA ambassador at Myrtle Beach airport causes stir among cab drivers

Cab drivers want “even playing field” when competing with government-subsidized entity

As a Coast RTA official boasts about a great first summer the company had at Myrtle Beach International Airport, cab drivers and owners are crying foul claiming the government-funded transit company violates the airport’s no-soliciting policy by having an ambassador greet passengers after they retrieve their luggage.

Coast RTA and the airport says it’s simply not true.

The airport’s solicitation policy reads: “Soliciting of contributions, funds or donations for any purpose is prohibited on airport property. Verbal solicitation of customers for any business purpose is not permitted on airport property. Commercial transportation companies shall be allowed to utilize small hand held signs displaying the name of the group or individual they are on airport property to pick up provided that the hand held signs comply with all regulations/requirements established by the director.”

Coast RTA and airport officials admit the transit has an ambassador in the terminal, who is located in the “Visitor Information” booth run by the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Yes, RTA has an ambassador in the terminal building,” said Kirk Lovell, spokesman for the airport. “The RTA ambassador has been on site, daily, at the airport, since the dedicated bus route commenced service.”

Coast RTA has been providing its 747 North and 747 South routes since June, providing a direct shuttle to hotels and businesses along Ocean Boulevard and the Myrtle Beach Sheraton Convention Center. The cost is $7 one way and $10 round trip.

“The purpose of the RTA ambassador is to answer customer questions about public transportation, dedicated stops along each route, bus arrival times and most importantly assist people find the bus,” Lovell said.

Asked why the Coast RTA was able to solicit riders and not cab drivers, Lovell said, “RTA staff are acting as an ambassador, they are not permitted to approach people about buying tickets but allowed to answer questions when approached.”

Myers Rollins, general manager of the transit, called the first year’s 4,100 customers so far “fantastic,” noting the transit targeted an average of 30 riders per day and actually reached about 42 riders per day. He said about 85 percent of those riders elected a roundtrip ticket, securing those passengers for their trip back to the airport. The solicitation claim, however, he debunked.

“It’s not true,” Rollins said. “We have talked to our ambassador, airport officials and customers, and there is no one who supports this theory that we’re soliciting.”

He said if the cab drivers’ claims of solicitation were true, which he said are not, the bus serves merely 27 hotels of the nearly 500 hotels along the Grand Strand.

“We wouldn’t be penetrating enough of their market share to make that big of a difference,” he said.

Rollins said part of his selling point to the County Council to get the routes at the airport was that Myrtle Beach was the only airport in a top 10 list of vacation destinations who did not have shuttle service. As the project rolled out, and in lieu of proper signage, Rollins suggested the ambassador be located at the chamber booth “to make sure there was not a disconnect between them going to the chamber of commerce booth and getting to a bus.”

“I just think that there’s enough work for everybody,” he said. “We’re certainly not there to generate a profit. We’re there to provide a service.”

The agency acquired the two buses used for the airport route with grants for $350,000 each, Rollins has said. This is Myrtle Beach’s first fixed-route airport service, Rollins said.

Owners and drivers of the 95 cabs permitted to line up at the airport pay $130 per month to the airport for their permits, which adds up to more than $148,000 the airport receives from cabs in fees. If a passenger who called ahead has a delayed flight, cab drivers are sent to a secondary lot where they are charged an additional $7. The driver’s rates are controlled by city ordinance, so sometimes the drivers must forfeit business because it usually has to pass the surcharge on to the passenger.

Harry Pavilack, an attorney who spoke for the cab drivers recently, said cab drivers would be willing to put their own ambassador in the terminal if it was allowed.

“If they can’t go inside, then that guy should move outside,” Pavilack said referring to the RTA’s ambassador. “If he wants to stay inside, that’s fine, they will pay a separate person to be in there.”

“We just want an even playing field,” said James Dixon, a driver at the airport. “We don’t care that the buses are here.”

But Tom Haughney, a driver for King’s Taxi, quipped, “It would be better if they weren’t subsidized by the government.”

Haughney, who has been driving at the airport for five years, said with the down economy in years past and the loss of Direct Air last year, the new competition is just the icing on the cake.

“I could see if it chooses to provide transportation where there isn’t any, by why it chooses to compete where there already is a successful transportation service, it makes no sense,” he said. “This year we’ve been devastated by the RTA, so the trend for me is down.”

Gerry Wood, a cab driver at the airport for eight years, sad if the drivers had a chance to talk to passengers, they would explain the cost effectiveness of taking a cab.

“Two-thirds of the time, the people going out to that bus, if they talk to a taxi guy would find out that they’ll get there in five minutes, it’ll cost them half as much money, and they’re not paying for a kid that’s under 16,” Wood said. “On the bus, they’re paying for kids over 7. We cannot point this out to the people.”

Rollins refutes that theory and provided The Sun News with a letter dated in June and written by a tourist named Michael Collier of Beachwood, Ohio, who commended the transit on the bus service.

“In the past my taxi bill is always $20 to $28 one way depending on what hotel I am at,” Collier wrote. “I must admit we were all amazed to arrive and learn that you now offer a shuttle for a mere $10 round trip. Here is the best part. Your shuttle got me to my hotel in nothing flat. The shuttle Ambassador went out of his way to make change and accommodate us. While I was a little anxious at first I was pleased when they showed up at my hotel exactly on time to get me back to the airport. The drivers were courteous and helped us with our luggage and clubs.”

Cab drivers have a host of complaints they say fall on deaf ears at the airport. In fact, an unsigned memo on airport letterhead dated June 11 read: “Do not approach or harass the RTA drivers and ambassadors. If a driver is observed approaching the ambassador, he and the cab will be suspended. After suspension, the driver will lose his privilege to enter the building.”

Lovell said the memo was sent out, but it was because “there was a incident that made a RTA employee feel uncomfortable.”

The drivers are allowed to use the restroom and grab a bite to eat inside the terminal, said former Director of Airports Mike LaPier. But some drivers said they have been called out over the intercom system to get back to their cabs or they will face suspension.

Lovell said the RTA ambassador is not permanent, but “a temporary solution until in-terminal signage is modified allowing passengers to easily locate their ground transportation destination.”

“The airport is planning to update directional/way finding signage in the terminal building, specifically in the bag claim area,” Lovell said. “Currently, signage reads ‘ground transportation’ in several areas in an attempt to lead passengers to the taxi stand, hotel shuttles, car rental, and more; at the doors leading to the taxi stand there is an overhead sign which reads ‘taxi cabs.’ On several interior overhead signs the airports plan is to modify the verbiage from ‘ground transportation’ to ‘taxi cabs.’ … This change is for the fact that the airport is getting numerous questions from passengers as to where taxi cabs are located.

“Currently, there is no signage in the terminal building directing people to ‘public transportation.’ As part of the said changes ‘public transportation’ verbiage will be added in an attempt to help passengers identify the correct doors to use in order to reach the ‘bus stop.’ When complete, the signs will read ‘taxi cabs/public transportation’ with directional arrows,” Lovell said.

Rollins, however, said he would like to see the ambassador have a continued presence at the airport after the proper signage is in place.

“We intend to continue to work with airport officials to reach an agreement on what serves passengers best at the airport,” Rollins said.

He continued to state he was “dumbfounded” and “at a loss” that the cab drivers had an issue with Coast RTA. Rollins said the Coast RTA ambassador directs passengers to cab drivers “15 to 20 times per day” if a passenger is not going to one of the buses stops along Ocean Boulevard.

“We say ‘You have to catch a cab for that’ because we see cab drivers as our business associates,” Rollins said.

Pavilack said the battle with the ambassador is just at the top of a laundry list of issues the cab drivers have at the airport. A lack of a curb cut for handicapped passengers near the cab line-up as well as a lack of overheard cover for inclement weather are other things cab drivers would like to see at the airport.

Lovell said cab drivers are encouraged to contact the airport with any issues.

“The airport has an agreement with over 15 taxi cab company owners, which operate a magnitude of taxi vehicles,” he said. “The agreement between the owners and airport is that owners are to formally notify the airport of any issues.”

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