The city has shooed away the first attempt by a ride-share company to make illegal inroads at Chicago's airports, which up until now have been the profitable domain of taxis and limos fiercely competing for passengers.
The four-day episode started last weekend, when UberX told its drivers that they could start picking up clients who ordered rides from O'Hare International and Midway airports using smartphone apps. It also marked the latest skirmish in the continuing battle over the future of Chicago's rides-for-hire industry, which the Emanuel administration has supported expanding to give consumers more options.
The fight pits ride-share drivers, described by their companies as part-timers who use their own vehicles to earn a little extra money each week, against cabbies who drive the streets up to 16 hours a day, including waiting bumper to bumper at airport check-in stations and paying for the $4 departure stamp for each trip they pick up at the airports.
The players behind the scenes are the technology entrepreneurs who run the app-based ride-share (officially called “transportation network provider”) businesses and the titans of taxicab companies who have invested upward of $300,000 per Chicago taxi license, or medallion.
The new clash began last Friday, when UberX sent an electronic message to its drivers telling them that, “effective immediately,” passenger pickups were allowed at O'Hare and Midway for the first time.
Despite the bulletin, which was headlined “urgent news,” nothing had changed. Under city ordinance, only licensed taxicabs and chauffeur services are permitted to serve the airports. Those services pay city taxes that ride-share companies do not.
The UberX message went on to provide airport terminal maps and “tips” for ride-share drivers picking up airport passengers who request rides using the company's smartphone app. The advice included telling drivers to wait in the airports' free cell phone parking lots until customers order rides, then to use the “friends and family pickup lane” outside the terminal — apparently in order to blend in with the regular drivers in private vehicles picking up travelers.
Taxicabs and limousines are assigned to specific staging areas for commercial vehicles.
UberX's bid to penetrate the airport market occurred as the city is honing its first regulations on the commercial ride-share industry, which appeared here more than a year ago. The Emanuel administration's proposed ordinance, amended three times, is awaiting final action before the City Council.
One of the complaints from the taxi and limousine industry is that the measures are too lenient and will drive the professional livery services out of existence. That sentiment was echoed Tuesday by Chicago cab drivers who were asked about UberX's airport activity and the ride-share industry more generally.
“We don't have enough business as it is,” said Isaac John, a driver for Yellow Cab Co. who was picking up customers outside the Palmer House on Tuesday. “Seven out of 10 cab drivers will tell you they have to work seven days a week to survive.”
Femi Babatunde, who was also waiting on a fare outside the Palmer House, said his two to three airport trips on an average day account for 40 percent of his income. He typically waits at an airport for about 90 minutes for a $40 fare, he said. That's what he'd make per hour on his best days. On a bad day, he said, he might make $10 per hour. Ride-share drivers would extend the already long wait at the airport, he predicted.
“We would be there for like four or five hours,” said Babatunde, who has been a cab driver for 24 years. “I would drop out. … I would consider that.”
Not all cab drivers are as passionately against the prospect, however. Emanuel Adula had just come back from one of the airports during rush hour Tuesday but said that traffic extended what would normally be a 15-minute trip to downtown to 45 minutes.
“When I came back, it was not worth it,” Adula said of the $40 fare. “For me it's not important. I don't care really.”
The United Taxidrivers Community Council, which is attempting to unionize Chicago taxi drivers, reported the UberX violations at O'Hare and Midway to the city, which on Monday ordered the company to stop picking up passengers at the airports, said Mika Stambaugh, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection.
“The city has not authorized any ride-sharing company to offer pickups at either airport, and any company offering that service is subject to enforcement, which includes tickets and vehicle impoundment,” Stambaugh said. “The city intends to strictly enforce this policy.”
So far, no tickets have been written or vehicles towed to city car pounds in response to ride-share drivers poaching on the designated turf of taxis and limos, Stambaugh said.
Asked to explain why UberX suddenly started service to the airports Friday in direct violation of the law, company spokeswoman Lauren Altmin emailed the Tribune on Tuesday saying that “both O'Hare and Midway desperately need additional transportation options.”
UberX hinted that it plans to resume service at O'Hare and Midway soon.
Immediately after the city crackdown, UberX alerted its ride-share drivers that “we will be placing UberX pickups at the airports on hold. We appreciate your continued service and patience as we work with the city and state on an improved process for UberX airport pickups.”
Mara Georges, an attorney for the Illinois Transportation Trade Association, which represents taxi and chauffeured livery companies, said it would damage Chicago's reputation as a world-class city for travelers to step off a plane and get into a car with “an amateur driver who has not gone through a criminal background check, doesn't have professional insurance and doesn't know where they are going.”
The ride-share companies said they screen their drivers, train them and are working with insurers to provide commercial coverage that would go beyond the levels that taxi drivers have on their policies.
But pressed on the issue of how UberX decided to sidestep city law banning ride-share services at the airports, Andrew Macdonald, general manager for UberX in Chicago, said he would have liked to have an agreement for any appropriate fees that allow UberX to operate at airports.
“But in the absence of one, we did our best to help facilitate ride-sharing trips for people who chose to use the service,” he said.
Michael Shakman, an attorney representing taxi and livery companies, argued in a letter to the city law department on Friday that adding ride-share vehicles to the mix of traffic at O'Hare and Midway would worsen congestion around the passenger terminals and introduce serious safety and security questions.
“If this action is not stopped, it is further evidence that the Emanuel administration has simply ceded the streets of Chicago to Uber and its cohorts,” Shakman wrote to corporation counsel Steve Patton.
Tribune reporter Meredith Rodriguez contributed.