Taxi drivers at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, angry that their fees have gone up while ridership has declined, want help from a union to protest working conditions they say keep them from earning a decent living.
The cabbies could vote later this month to associate with the Masters, Mates and Pilots Union, the marine division of the International Longshoremen's Association, which represents workers at the Port of Baltimore.
The 116 cabbies at the airport all are independent contractors.
The drivers said they have tried for years without success to resolve their problems with the owners of Ground Transportation Professionals (GTP), which has an exclusive contract to provide taxi service at the airport.
"The drivers are getting hit from all sides and they are asking for some relief," said F. Kirk Kolodner, a lawyer representing those who want to organize.
They chose the maritime union because it already has ties to the state Department of Transportation, which operates the port and BWI.
Although they could not form a local and wouldn't pay dues because of their status as independent contractors, the drivers could take advantage of the union's lawyers and its political connections, said Jim Hopkins, treasurer of the Masters, Mates and Pilots.
"They came to us with some concerns and we are willing to help them out," he said.
For example, the drivers are complaining that GTP won't allow them to operate cabs more than 3 years old and that the company allows too many cabs to operate at the airport, spreading business too thin.
Sangho Lee, GTP's manager, dismissed their complaints and attributed their discontent to the stagnant national economy.
"We just can't go and change things until the contract with the state is over," Mr. Lee said.
"The economy may pick up later this year and then the drivers will be happy," he said.
The dispute resembles one 14 years ago that led to a strike by cab drivers to protest their weekly rental fees to Airocar, which held the contract then.
While a strike does not appear imminent, drivers say it is time to band together.
"There just needs to be organization to solve all these problems," said Webb Perdue, who has driven a cab at the airport for five years.
Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA) officials acknowledged that many cab drivers are unhappy, but also said their problems stem from the economy.
"We have had a declining taxicab ridership," said Nicholas J. Schaus, the MAA's deputy administrator. "They are feeling the effects of the economy."
Mr. Schaus conceded that GTP had been slow to fulfill some of its obligations, such as hiring a dispatcher for the central terminal, but said other disputes can be resolved only by the company and the drivers.
But the drivers blame the loss of business on the state.
"BWI right now is a dead airport," said Mike Klyotskin, who has been driving a cab at the airport for eight years and last month complained about conditions to Gov. William Donald Schaefer on his weekly radio call-in show. "It seems that airlines are running away from here."
From 1990 to 1992, the number of cab trips out of BWI has fallen to 188,000 from 209,000, a 10 percent decrease.
During those same years, the number of airline passengers at BWI has dropped 14 percent, to 8.8 million from 10.2 million.
Meanwhile, the fees the drivers pay GTP to operate at the airport have gone up to $132 a week this year, from $107 in 1989.
With 116 drivers, that translates into nearly $800,000 a year for the company, which employs 15 people.
The drivers make whatever they collect in fares and tips after paying GTP's fees. Fares, which were last increased in 1991, are $1.20 a mile plus a $2.10 drop-off charge. Before 1991, rates were $1 a mile plus a $1.10 drop-off charge.
Drivers say a trip from BWI to Baltimore's Inner Harbor currently runs between $12 and $14.
Under its contract, GTP pays the MAA $1.75 million over five years. This year the figure is $320,000.
GTP won an extension of the contract, which it has held since 1981, two years ago when it outbid four firms by offering the state double the minimum bid requirement of $875,000.
William F. Adams 3rd, a cabbie at BWI for 10 years and one of the leaders of the organizing movement, charged that GTP overbid to win the contract.
"They are in way over their head and the drivers are getting the shaft because of it," he said.
Meanwhile, GTP has added more cabs to its fleet while the number of potential customers has dropped, adding up to idle time for the drivers.
One morning last week after the early rush, cab drivers said they had been waiting for two hours without even getting to the terminal. Too many cabs, they said, and too few customers.
The drivers want the company to reduce the number of cabs through attrition, but GTP's contract requires it to keep a minimum of 110 cabs.
That means there can be 40 to 50 cabs backed up in the holding area at one time. "Each additional cab on line results in decreased revenues for each driver since there are just so many fares to be split among them in a declining economy," Mr. Kolodner wrote in a letter to GTP owner Franklin S. Lee.
But Sangho Lee, Franklin Lee's son, said eliminating cabs would mean increasing the rent.
"If we reduce the number of cabs, then we have to raise the stand fee," he said.
Randolf Asceneio, who has driven a cab for four years, said he is lucky to make $30 profit a day on four or five fares, after paying for rent, uniforms and car insurance.
The drivers want Anne Arundel County's regulations, which allow cabs 6 years old, to apply to them, too.
But both Mr. Lee and MAA officials said they won't use the county standard. "We believe six years is too long," Mr. Schaus said. "They are major ambassadors to the airport."
Mr. Schaus said the MAA offered a compromise to allow 4-year-old cabs, but said GTP "chose not to exercise that option."
Mr. Lee said the company wants the airport to have highest quality taxis. "We can boast that we have the best cabs in Maryland," he said.
A contingent of drivers and Mr. Kolodner met last month with Mr. Schaus and Ted Mathison, the MAA administrator, and are awaiting a reply to some of their concerns.