Giant company wants to squeeze out locals
It's a misty morning at San Francisco International Airport, with the fog breaking into a slight drizzle. At the ground transportation area, travelers were repeatedly running in to each other in their head-down dash across packed taxi lanes.
The biggest bottleneck wasn't the cars, though; it was the confused populace staring up at multicolored, multiarrowed transportation-related signs. Taxi? No. Shuttle? Yes, but which shuttle — reserved, hotel, or shared-ride?
I watch the collective confusion from the shared-ride zone, itself a tricolor ménage. A small sign shows that the red, yellow, and blue zones each correspond to a set of shuttle companies, but it takes some time to figure out which is which. Someone (official or not, I can't tell) has crossed out and reassigned companies with a permanent marker. Good thing I don't actually need a ride.
I ask a curb coordinator on duty, Carlos Marenco, about the colored zones. He explains that there are eight small shuttle companies that share the yellow zone — they rotate every five minutes. Two companies use the red zone and rotate every seven minutes. And one company, SuperShuttle, has its own blue zone. Why are the zones distributed like this, I ask?
"SuperShuttle and Lorrie's (a red zone company) are bigger. More people know them, so they need more space," Marenco said.
Just then a bewildered couple approached the shared-ride zone. They began talking to the driver of a small yellow zone company who is about to finish his allotted five minutes.
"No," a coordinator shouts as he comes bustling toward passengers. "You need to go down to the blue zone."
"Why?" the man asks.
"It is not this driver's turn. You need to go to the blue zone,"
The coordinator takes their bags from the driver and begins wheeling them to the blue zone.
"They want to ride with me!" he shouts.
The couple is already down the sidewalk though, guiltily following their bags to a waiting SuperShuttle — and the next yellow zone driver idles nearby waiting for their spot at the curb. The driver curses, slams his door, and drives off empty.
AT THE CURB
Curb space at SFO is prime real estate, and a battle is underway between the giant SuperShuttle — owned by a French conglomerate — and a group of small, locally owned airport shuttle companies that say that they're being pushed aside.
It gets heated out at the curb — when I talked to him after the unlucky driver left without his potential passengers, Marenco explained that the coordinators are often yelled at by enraged drivers.
"They think we cheat them, but we do not," Marenco said. He says his job is to make sure drivers do not solicit passengers and that each zone gets an equal number of walk-up customers. He has come up with his own system — three large rectangular red, yellow, and blue magnets he puts on a pole at the front of the line to show drivers who gets the next passenger.
But Aaron Chan, owner of Advance Airporter, a small company stuck in the yellow zone, said that "the drivers are always telling me that the curb coordinators give many more passengers to SuperShuttle, even when it is not their turn." And some small companies say that the big outfit pays the coordinators for more favorable treatment.
Marenco insists he never took money (which you can call tips or bribes, depending on your attitude). But Matt Curwood, San Francisco SuperShuttle general manager, acknowledged that "there have been a number of situations where our drivers are forced into circumstances where coordinators will only escort passengers to their shuttle if they are provided with payment of some form."
There are no shining angels here. Both parties blame the other side; both deny bribery themselves (but claim the others do it), and the coordinators deny it happens at all.