Earlier this week, Alaska Airlines and the ridesharing company-slash-black-towncar-service Uber announced that they were teaming up to provide free rides to the airport, up to a $50 value, on December 23 and 24, two of the top travel days of the year. (By law—and contract—only Yellow taxi cabs are allowed to pick up riders at the airport, although any car service can drop users off.)
The promotion, which requires users to sign up for Uber and provide credit-card info (in case the value of their ride goes above $50) is valid for the entire 48 hours; in a statement, Alaska marketing VP Joe Sprague said, "Holiday travel can be stressful, so we're excited to bring a little joy to the season by making it really easy for customers to get to the airport and begin their holiday vacations."
It's a smart promotion—essentially, the company pays $50 for each new customer—that highlights the disruptive quality of ridesharing services like Uber, which compete with traditional cab companies whose business model requires users to call and wait (Uber, and its competitor Lyft, allow users to book cars through smartphone apps and let them know precisely when their ride will arrive).
Cab companies that ridesharing services—which are currently unregulated—present unfair competition to the heavily regulated (and conscribed—currently, the city limits the number of taxi licenses to 850) taxi industry. They've argued for tough insurance and licensing requirements for ridesharing vehicles, as well as a limit on the number of licenses; currently, the city council is considering legislation that could restrict each ridesharing company to just 100 vehicles.
We wondered what Seattle's taxi industry thought of Uber's holiday promotion. Here's what Dawn Gearhart, the business representative for the Teamsters Local 117, who represents taxi drivers, had to say. (Gearhart spoke to PubliCola as the taxi drivers were presenting a $3,300 check, made up of $10 contributions from individual drivers, to Northwest Harvest.)
Our reaction is that it’s really nice, and it’s great to be backed by billions of dollars in venture capital money. For the public, that's great. Unfortunately, city and county regulations say that if you’re in a taxicab, you have to have the meter running and provide a receipt. For taxicab operators who follow the law and do their best to serve the public as much as they can ... it makes it hard to provide free trips for two days. It's a great marketing strategy, though. For my friends on Capitol Hill who are going to the airport, they get a free trip.
[But] for the city drivers and county drivers whose only trips are to and from the airport, that means they’re going to be losing income over the next few days. Christmas is going to be a little less pleasant for their families, because they’re going to have less income. They're going to be seeing their profits cut into during the most busy travel season of the year.
It's an interesting juxtaposition that we’re talking about free trips the airport so that people who can afford to take flights can ride for free, while our drivers have collected $10 a person, which will pay for 15,000 meals [through Northwest Harvest].