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BWI taxi drivers protest new management plan

The holding lot at BWI Marshall Airport was a sea of white vehicles Tuesday as angry taxi drivers massed to protest a proposal that would award the airport's taxi concession to a Virginia-based company.

With the state poised to consider Dulles Airport Taxi Inc.'s $7.1 million bid for a four-year concession contract, the drivers said they feared the company would reduce the number of owner-operated taxis at the airport. With flashing lights and signs reading "No Dulles Airport Taxi," they headed to Annapolis for a show of opposition a day before the proposal was scheduled on the state Board of Public Works agenda.

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"This is basically our livelihood," said Elias Ibrahim, a BWI driver for 11 years, as he prepared to depart for the protest. "I'm afraid I will lose my job, the same way every driver feels, based on [Dulles Airport Taxi's] record in the past."

Dulles Airport Taxi's bid — $1 million more than current concession holder BWI Taxi Management — is for exclusive rights to pick up fares at BWI. It does not deal with airport drop-offs, which can be handled by any licensed cab company, or fares, which are regulated by Anne Arundel County.

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According to a copy of application instructions provided by drivers, Dulles Airport Taxi plans to reduce the proportion of owner-operated vehicles in the fleet to 55 percent — down from the current 88 percent. That poses a threat to drivers who have invested in vehicles, they said.

Bashir Ahmad said he and other owner-operators buy their vehicles, which can be no more than two years old when purchased. They can spend about $1,000 outfitting them with dome lights, meters and other equipment, as well as securing the licenses and permits.

"That's the scary part of the new contract — what are we going to do about these cars? You put the logo on it, it's dead," Ahmad said, noting that BWI Airport Taxi drivers cannot pick up fares outside the airport.

Dulles Airport Taxi Vice President John Massoud said he couldn't comment on the proportion of owners to drivers using vehicles leased from the company. "There's no guarantee there will be leased vehicles" at BWI, he said.

At Dulles Airport in Northern Virginia, 65 percent of the company's drivers are owner-operators and 35 percent are leased, based on an understanding between his company and the airport, Massoud said.

In Maryland, each bidder determines the makeup of its fleet, said Jonathan Dean, a spokesman for the Maryland Aviation Administration.

Dulles Airport Taxi has begun recruiting and has taken more than 200 applications and interviewed 150 drivers, Massoud said.

"We are looking forward to increasing our drivers' income," he said. "We are able to do this at every airport and expect to do the same here."

Owner-operators hired by Dulles would pay $169 weekly to pick up fares at the airport, Massoud said — the same rate they pay BWI Airport Taxi. According to a copy of application instructions provided by drivers, Dulles Airport Taxi would charge an additional $20 communications fee, but Massoud said that is still being discussed.

The contract performance standards include a clause requiring drivers to be available 24 hours a day. But Massoud said Dulles Airport Taxi does not schedule shifts and the drivers would not be on call.

"What we will do is allow them to work as many or as few hours as they choose to, in accordance with National Labor Relations Board regulations," he said. "That is how we work at every other airport, and I would assume we would do the same here."

If approved by the Board of Public Works, the concession contract would go into effect July 1.

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Drivers also complained Tuesday about the Maryland Aviation Administration's plan to reduce the number of taxis at BWI to 250 — a decrease of about 70 from BWI Airport Taxi's current fleet. Demand for taxi service has declined at BWI even though air passenger traffic has increased, Dean said.

Ahmad, who has driven for BWI Airport Taxi off and on since 2000, said the Maryland Aviation Administration should have dictated more of the terms of the taxi concession when it was put out to bid, including the fees that owner-operators would pay and the proportion of owners to leased vehicles.

"We don't want anybody to lose their job here," Ahmad said. "The $1 million [that gave Dulles Airport Taxi the high bid] comes on the backs of all these drivers."

Drivers said they were concerned about future working conditions and the history of Dulles Airport Taxi, one of three companies that offer service at Dulles International. According to news reports, the company held the contract there for about 10 years until drivers protested long working hours and high fees they were required to pay to the company.

Later, in 2006, some rallied in support of their former manager.

Massoud said the average driver working from 1989 to 2000 "was making an exceptional amount of money." He attributed the disputes between drivers and the company to "some political differences within groups of drivers."

When the company returned to the airport in 2008, "an overwhelming amount of drivers wanted to work with us and not with other companies," Massoud said.

He added: "Our record speaks for itself."

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