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.
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.
And the whole mess is getting dropped in the lap of the Airport Commission, which in the past has been very friendly to SuperShuttle.
When the new Terminal 2 opened in April, airport staff asked each shuttle company to submit a letter discussing how zoning should be organized at the new curb. SuperShuttle responded — and took the opportunity to push a topic it has been trying to get SFO officials to adopt since the early 1990s: limiting the number of shuttle companies allowed to serve SFO to no more than two or three.
Curwood says that of the airports SuperShuttle operates in, SFO is the most difficult for customers to navigate. In the letter, he proposed the solution of "a competitive RFP process [that] enables competition and improves the quality of service the customer currently experiences. The essence of the problem SFO faces is that it is trying to accommodate too many substandard operators at the jeopardy of the public's experience and safety."
Gil Sharabi, general manager of Airport Express, a yellow zone company his father started in 1979, told me that his company has a perfect safety record and is just as qualified to serve the public as SuperShuttle. Sharabi says that SuperShuttle is really aiming to eliminate local business competition.
SuperShuttle's corporate offices are in Illinois, and it serves 36 airports in the United States.
Curwood says it's unfair to make this about the big company versus the little guy. "When you see one of those SuperShuttles on the road, that's its own business. That's its own franchise. I want that to be clear because we talk about small companies, and in fact what we are is a franchise for over 100 small companies."
SuperShuttle may be made up of franchises, but the company itself is owned by Veolia Transportation, part of French multinational company Veolia Environment. Veolia is a Fortune 200 company with four divisions — water, energy, environmental services, and transport — and is the 34th-largest employer in the world. Its website boasts that it is the leading private water service provider in the world and the "No. 1 private transportation operator in Europe and North America." So much for the little guy.
Sharabi says that aside from monopolization threats, the real problem is the special treatment SuperShuttle is given by airport staff.
The current tricolor system began in 1993 when the airport tried to terminate space in the yellow zone. The issue went to the Board of Supervisors, which directed the airport to give yellow zone companies their space back.
Since then, the companies in the yellow zone have been forced to share their space eight ways, which means fewer customers for them. If each colored zone gets one-third of walk-up customers, a company in the yellow zone — if it's lucky — one out of every 24. SuperShuttle, on the other hand, gets all blue zone customers and can wait to pile in passengers, saving on gas and time. Furthermore, the eight yellow zone companies pay more of the third-party curb coordinator's salaries than SuperShuttle.
Ray Sloan-Zayotti of the local lobbying firm Public Policy Advocates, which has represented the eight yellow zone companies since 1993, said that by not making SuperShuttle rotate, "they essentially have a free billboard right outside the terminal — and they don't have to pay the fees the others pay to loop through the airport."
Sharabi said the situation at SFO is unusual. "There are even more shuttles at Oakland Airport, but no one complains there," Sharabi said. "It's because everyone over there is treated fairly — and that's all we're asking for."
Indeed, Sharabi said, one of the most aggravating parts of this debate is that the day after airport staff received SuperShuttle's letter, it led to a long discussion at the Airport Commission. He said his and other yellow zone companies have been trying for years to get the commission and staff to listen to their complaints of unequal treatment.
"They don't want to listen to us," Sharabi said. "They have decided that they want SuperShuttle here, and not us. And they haven't given us a reason why.
"We've been sending letters and doing proposals and lots of work for years," he added. "And they have not only never cared for us, they have never forwarded anything to the commission," Sharabi said.
In exasperation, the eight yellow zone companies sent a response letter directly to the Airport Commission outlining their position. "For nearly two decades a majority of companies — many that have been around much longer than SuperShuttle — have sent letters to SFO and the commission that have been received with little or no interest," it stated. The letter went on to ask the commission to consider giving all 11 companies equal time at the curb.
Sharabi and Sloan-Zayotti both point out that SuperShuttle hired Platinum Advisors, a well-known local lobbying firm. Curwood confirmed that SuperShuttle has hired the company, adding that it's common for businesses dealing with the city to hire lobbyists. (Indeed, yellow zone companies have a lobbyist of their own.) He said SuperShuttle's proposal will benefit passengers, but that it is ultimately up to the commissioners and airport staff.
"The system is right now catering to the small companies to ensure their survival rather than catering to the public," Curwood said. "[The letter is] not saying 'I want to kick everyone out of business,' it's saying that these are serious issues our customers say they face and proposing a way to put standards in place that will change it."
"In all honesty, we understand what SuperShuttle is doing — and that's reducing the competition for them," Sharabi said. "It's business, right? But what's not right is that unelected officials get to make decisions that affect small business owners like us without having to answer to the public. That right there is the problem."
"I do not know where that's coming from," said Michael McCarron, director of the SFO Bureau of Community Affairs. "We listen to everyone. We can't make everyone happy, but we try to listen to everyone and work out the best possible arrangements for all the operators."
Sharabi disagreed. "Everybody drops the line 'You know we support the local people.' But it couldn't be further from the truth."