The first and last impression that many visitors have of Cleveland is the man or woman behind the wheel of a taxi cab at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. In recent years, these unofficial city ambassadors have acquired a number of foreign accents, as new immigrants have found cab driving to be one of the more accessible ways they have to earn a living in their new country. Whether it will remain an easy path into the region's job market is unclear. This week, a measure was introduced in Cleveland City Council designed to bring order to an airport taxi service that some describe as chaotic. ideastream's David C. Barnett reports.
Frank has a nostalgic look on his face as he moves onto the exit ramp that leads into Cleveland Hopkins Airport. He hasn't been here for awhile.
Frank: Working out at the airport used to be kinda fun. You could make some decent money on a Sunday night, or a Monday night. But, those days are over.
Frank, who prefers that we not use his last name, drives part time for Yellow Cab as a way to pick up some extra money in the evening and on weekends. He says, for years, local taxi service was dominated by Yellow and AmeriCab. But, in the past five years, the market has exploded, with smaller companies owned by immigrants from India, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa.
Frank: Out of nowhere, it's like all of these cab companies are just cropping up! And it's like, how is the city allowing this? It's not needed. There's too many cabs on the road as it is.
Frank and a number of other drivers say that a wait in the airport taxi cue line can last upwards of an hour and a half. And if the passenger you pick-up only goes to nearby Lakewood, the driver will have to come back and face another long wait. Cleveland's new Director of Port Control, Ricky Smith, has responded with a plan that City Council is currently scrutinizing. It would put one company in charge of the entire taxi operation at Hopkins, and create uniform service standards.
Ricky Smith: This new arrangement will limit the number of taxi operators that can operate at the airport. That drives revenue up. It will also have an effect on the morale of the taxi drivers and the quality of service.
When the airport asked for companies to bid on such a service, it limited the applicants to businesses with seven years of operating experience and a million dollars of annual gross revenue.
Julius Ngnga: It is very, very unfair.
Julius Ngnga drives for the Somali-owned USA Taxi, which is less than five years old.
Julius Ngnga: The very young companies - Airport Taxi, USA, ABC - they are technically knocked out of the list for bidding.
Ngnga is a native of Kenya, but of Somali heritage. He says he majored in business in college, and has dreams of starting up a private venture importing artificial fishing flies, hand-made in his homeland.
Julius Ngnga: All that I learned in my Economics, I see it in play in this country. And I'm very excited to be part of it.
For now, he says, driving a cab has proven to be a lesson in entrepreneurship. Frank, the Yellow Cab driver, thinks some of the immigrant drivers could use a few more lessons.
Frank: It seems like passengers are complaining, because they can't get proper service. A lot of the Somalian drivers will turn down passengers because it's a trip that's not long enough. But, in my book, it's like, 'Hey man, if you're gonna work the airport, the airport's a crap shoot.' You have to accept whatever you get.
Julius Ngnga admits that some drivers do reject low-fare passengers, but, he says, it's not just the immigrant cabbies.
Julius Ngnga: I have seen it with everyone. All companies. Whether they are white Americans, white Polish, or white Romanians.
Port Director Ricky Smith wants to get his new system up and running before the holiday rush.
Ricky Smith: What we expect you'll see, shortly before Thanksgiving, is a new taxicab service, where all the cabs will look like 'Cleveland Hopkins International Airport' taxi cabs. They will be white cabs with the airport's logo on them. They will all be equipped with GPS systems that allow the taxi cab drivers to take the passengers to their destination by the most efficient route.
Julius Ngnga examines his cell phone and clicks the caller into his voice mail, so that he can make one last point about his new country, and the promise of a free market economy.
Julius Ngnga: If you want to be happy in business, you've got to be ready to compete. And people should not be wary, and they should not be afraid to compete. And so, I don't know why they should be afraid to compete with a small community called 'Somalis.' (chuckles)
Frank, the Yellow Cab driver, says he isn't afraid to compete. He's just frustrated by a system that's gotten way out of control.
Frank: I'll never go back to the airport until some kind of change happens.
Exactly what kind of change that will be, now rests in the hands of Cleveland City Council. The Aviation and Transportation Committee was due to hold hearings on the plan today, but pending some unanswered questions, those deliberations have been delayed. David C. Barnett, 90.3.