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.

Many cabbies in this town work 15­-hour days, Merkin tells me, trying to get as many fares as possible. They still end up on welfare.

And now that AAA is planning an increase in their lease rate, Merkin believes they'll work even more: 16, 17 hours a day. "They're fatigued as it is," he tells me.

In every previous contract that the city signed for cab service since 1982, Merkin says that the city mandated the maximum daily rate that drivers could be charged. Yet the new contracts are silent on the issue.

Councilman Michael Johnson asked whether the city should mandate lease rates at a meeting I attended in November. In response, Assistant Aviation Director Carl Newman told him, "Our advice from legal staff is: Don't get so entrenched in the company's business that we're setting rates for them. Let's let the market work. They need drivers more than drivers need them — that will keep rates reasonably low."


So the city creates an artificial near-monopoly for AAA — and then says airily that the "market" should be allowed to work?

This is the kind of logic that should be causing the council members to erupt.

Instead, everybody nodded, smiled, and rubber-stamped it.

They trusted aviation staff.

Attorney Shane Gosdis filed the lawsuit on behalf of Merkin's association and a few start-up companies. He's been trying to stop the city from executing its contracts with Apache and AAA on February 1, as currently planned.

But the judge on the case has refused to let Gosdis depose executives at AAA and Apache. (That would be the only way to explore the relationship between the two companies.)

Gosdis is incredibly frustrated. And I don't blame him. The city actually tries to argue that Gosdis' claims are moot, since it's already inked its contracts. Never mind that Gosdis attempted to get a restraining order in December to stop the city from doing just that.

Even worse is the cavalier way that the city brushes off Gosdis' point about working conditions for drivers.

When Gosdis raised the issue of drivers being forced to work an unsafe amount of hours, Assistant City Attorney Nancy Kestleloot claimed that Phoenix has nothing to worry about. "The taxicab drivers must comply with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations that limit the maximum driving time for passenger-carrying vehicles," she wrote.

But that's simply not true: Those regulations only apply to drivers whose vehicles carry eight or more passengers. There's no regulation in Arizona today on how long a cabbie can work, Merkin avers.

Normally, I wouldn't get upset about a mistake that small. But Kestleloot's flip — and erroneous — response is another example of the city's appalling lack of curiosity about the Sky Harbor taxi drivers.

These guys are being held hostage by badly written contracts. They're being forced to accept lousy working conditions because of a botched selection process.

That ought to be enough to make Councilman Mattox's head explode.

Instead, silence.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske