Sky Harbor Cab Drivers' Dire Predictions About Airport Taxi Service Are Already Coming True

There was a point in November when I thought Phoenix City Councilman Claude Mattox's head might explode.

Dozens of cabbies had come to the November 18 council meeting to protest the city's selection process for cab service at Sky Harbor. Rather than pick cab companies based on experience, financials, or superior service, the city asked little more than how much they were willing to pay per cab.

So it may not be all that surprising that the process ended with two start-up companies being recommended for contracts — and more than 75 percent of the airport's cab allotment going to a single firm, AAA Cab.

The drivers at Sky Harbor, who are almost entirely independent contractors, were worried. With AAA controlling the market, cabbies would have little choice but to accept the company's terms. And with AAA paying the city a high per-cab fee to get the business, drivers feared that costs would be passed down to them.

At New Times, we'd also been raising questions. We'd uncovered ties between the two top bidders, Apache and Visum. We couldn't help wondering whether AAA was connected to them, too.

All three companies are owned by Iranians, which isn't a bad thing, but certainly is unusual. And though AAA has strongly denied a relationship with Apache or Visum, the company stood to get such a big piece of airport work only because those two offered the minimum number of cabs, leaving the lion's share for AAA.

Indeed, Visum's and Apache's winning the bid was the only scenario that would allow AAA to get such a big share of the airport business. It seemed too weird to be a coincidence. (It hardly helped that Visum's proposal didn't check out. Indeed, the company's only legitimate reference came from the owner of its supposed rival, Apache.)

But back to Claude Mattox's head for a moment, and that meeting on November 18.

One driver, David Faraji, whose company unsuccessfully bid for the work, challenged the city council to investigate the bid process. He was convinced there had been collusion.

Mattox, a veteran council member who hopes to be mayor some day, would have none of it.

"I resent those accusations," he thundered into his microphone. "You have no proof! I resent the hell out of those accusations!"

It was a weird moment. Most of the drivers who serve Sky Harbor are foreign-born. They do not speak smoothly, and their strong accents can be difficult to understand. But they've always been respectful during city meetings. Nothing in Faraji's comments should have sent Mattox into a blind rage.

Really, Faraji is the one who had a right to be angry. The entire bid process was incredibly flawed. The city's leading bidder was so unqualified that staff actually had to teach him how to prepare an employee manual. (Seriously!) Meanwhile, one of the Valley's two biggest cab companies, Discount, was so bothered by the process that it went on the record with its concerns.

But everyone was intent on shoving this thing through.

It wasn't just Claude Mattox; at a committee meeting I attended, Councilwoman Peggy Neely snapped so angrily at a Discount representative that you could almost see the spit fly. The rep, for the record, had said nothing remotely impolite. (Neither Mattox nor Neely responded to me by press time.)

Indeed, despite my previous reporting, the city council unanimously voted in November to award contracts to Visum, Apache, and AAA.

The council members made it clear: They didn't want to dig too deeply. They wanted to trust the city's aviation staff.

Two months later, we know just how that worked.

A group of cabbies, including the association that represents most of the Valley's drivers, filed a lawsuit against the city.

Meanwhile, the city's "top" bidder, Visum Investments, has either dropped out of the process or been pushed out. The city is now negotiating with a fourth company.

But rather than start over, the city quickly signed a contract with AAA, promising it 75 percent of the cabs at the airport. That means that even though the fourth company on the list wants to provide 60 cabs, I'm told the city is saying that only Visum's 20 cabs are left — take 'em or leave 'em.

And, all too predictably, now that AAA controls most of Sky Harbor's cab work, it's passing out a new rate sheet that includes a whopping 20 percent increase.

Instead of paying AAA $700 per week to take calls at the airport, drivers will have to pay the company $840.

"Over the years, the city has paid lip service to the idea of giving cab drivers a livable wage," says Richard Merkin, a retired cabbie and president of the association that represents drivers here. "Now, we're not even getting lip service.

"It's a farce."


There's a reason that so many of the drivers at Sky Harbor are recent immigrants. They're taking one of the toughest jobs in town — a job with conditions too onerous and pay too low to tempt most Americans.

These drivers spend their days in an airport parking lot, waiting for the go-ahead from dispatch for a turn to pick up a passenger. They might get only six passengers a day — yet they don't get paid for all the time they spend waiting. Plus, out of the meager fares they earn, they must pay their cab company approximately $100 per day.

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12 comments
Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

Seriously enough, Mr. Hassan Abdelrahman of Visum has recently been found guilty of participating in an aggravated assault in his native Sudan.

Ken Gunville
Ken Gunville

MOST DANGEROUS CABBIE I'VE EVER SEEN!! the driver drove 200 yards at 40 miles an hour, in reverse, through a residential neighborhood!! He skidded to a stop then squealed out of the neighbors drive. He narrowly missed 3 parked cars and another coming around the corner. When I called the company to complain they first said they had no way of knowing who the driver was. When I mentioned I called the police they suddenly remembered who the driver was and how to reach him. However, the night supervisor JP was still completely unconcerned about the drivers behavior or driving like he did. If you value your safety STAY AS FAR AWAY FROM THIS BUNCH AS POSSIBLE, but that's just my opinion.

Give me a break
Give me a break

Just what this tourist town, desperate for tourist and business revenues needs - an injury accident caused by an exhausted/sleep deprived taxi driver who is forced to work more hours for less pay. Brilliant!

Nothing amazes anymore about the sheer ineptitude of our government.

Matt
Matt

From the City of Phoenix, to the Superior Court judge, to the winning bidders, there seems to be a collusive effort to screw cabbies. They should all be removed from their jobs.

Brass Hat
Brass Hat

Perhaps this little dust up will draw some attention to the taxi business in Phoenix. Being the state capitol and largest city in the state, you'd think there'd be some regulation on taxi services here, but no. Hussein (owner of AAA Transportation) is rumored to own every Mexican cab company, to be illegally brokering insurance fares (can't remember the program name), and so on according to taxi drivers. While i don't give much value to rumors, especially in a business where failure is always someone else's fault, i will say this, Hussein has a _lot_ of money, and it takes deep pockets to set up an airport cab company.

Starting your own cab company is easy, all it takes is one car and a class D (standard license), unlike basically everywhere that requires a hack license (taxi license). You just need a sign on the roof, meter, proper size lettering and taxi insurance, and then for $25 annually, you can get your Weights and Measures label, and you've a taxi company. An airport company is a bit more complicated and more expensive, the cars have to be natural gas powered, there's a minimum number of units, that takes money on top of the contract bid. I've never seen Visum around, but i have seen Apache, and it looks like they've three cabs, probably owner operators which is common with the smaller companies, which makes me wonder who's providing the money.

Marcy
Marcy

If you don't like the work or fees, walk away.

Former Republican
Former Republican

Silence always seems to be the response when the officials are questioned. Where the oversight and accountability?

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen

Sarah, You were spot on. Thanks for staying on these convoluted corruption cases. There's a pattern to all this that blankets Maricopa County, local and state. We are paying attention to the details you write about.

wingware
wingware

You are missing the point of the article. It is not the drivers who should be on the chopping block. One drivers actions are not a representation of the whole. The City councel is the ones that should be condemed for supporting slave like working conditions. Really read the article, it is not only about taxis, it is really a comment on how our government is letting greed bury our state.

 
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