Washington Flyer: When Monopoly == Choice?

I have the unfortunate pleasure of calling Washington Dulles International Airport my home airport. I fly all over the world—always from Dulles. No airport is as bad. I will probably rant about a few other things later, but today it’s about the taxis. The Washington Flyer situation is probably the worst taxi set-up ever at a major airport. What finally got me annoyed enough to rant about it is a brochure they handed out during their last screw-up. It began: “Washington Flyer is a name synonymous with choice...” I just can’t imagine how that is true, given that the only time most people use Washington Flyer is when they have no choice. In fact, the whole premise behind Washington Flyer is that nobody gets any choices. This lame attempt by the marketing wonks to put a little salve on this injustice simply underscores how ridiculous it is.

We came home from a vacation on an icy February evening. The roads were slippery and traffic was bad. The taxi line at Dulles (which usually moves pretty quickly) was really long. Cabs were trickling in one by one. Finally, a Washington Flyer employee announced that they’d start sharing rides. They’d solicit people who were going in the same general direction and put them in cabs together. This is a boon for the driver, who collects two full fares during a single trip.

In talking to our driver, I ask why there are so few cabs. He said that the drivers don’t want to work in these icy conditions. Good thing Washington Flyer has a monopoly on taxi service to the airport. Rather than call on outside taxi companies to increase capacity, they make the passengers double up and wait on Washington Flyer taxis. Who benefits? Me? No. Drivers? No. Just the MWAA.

A few other things come out. Although Washington Flyer cabs are required to accept credit cards, the driver pays the credit card fee. That is, it comes out of his share of the fare. Furthermore, the driver pays $2.50 per trip out of the airport, no matter how far he’s going. Washington Flyer’s own brochure even says that they require drivers to:

  • Carry more insurance than is considered industry standard
  • Purchase a GPS unit (whether they need it or want it)
  • Wash and vacuum their vehicles daily

You know who pays for all that, too: the driver.

So, remember how they’re “synonymous with choice”? Who gets to choose something here? The driver got to choose the make and model of his vehicle. I think that’s it. I can’t choose my taxi company, my driver can’t choose how he runs his own cab.

I’m trying to figure out who benefits from this, and the only answer I can come up with is the Metro Washington Airports Authority. They make profit at everyone else’s expense. I wait on taxis, drivers can barely make enough to live on, and MWAA gets profit.

Why not do like every other airport: charge the taxis a fee when they go out (e.g. $3) and be done? Accept every taxi that comes in. It’s simpler to administer, better for passengers, better for taxis, etc. Although you can imagine various arguments like “this monopoly guarantees quality and guarantees that taxis will be available,” I don’t give those arguments much weight. Bigger airports, busier airports, and airports that have more inclement weather and such all do things with unrestricted taxis. Boston, New York, Atlanta, Chicago: they’re all unrestricted. In fact, I’ve flown to a lot of places and have never yet seen another airport like Dulles where the cabs are restricted.

Paco Hope is syonymous with a contented, taxi patron who sees no need for improvement in the system.