San Francisco politicians harp on about the need to stop big business from spoiling the city's character, and they have enacted some of the toughest restrictions on chain stores in the country.
But just a few miles away at San Francisco International Airport, that isn't the case. In fact, it soon may be open season on small, minority-owned businesses there. SFO administrators are pushing a plan that would reduce the number of shared-ride shuttle companies from 11 to only one or two. That means as many as 10 small and midsized shuttle companies will likely be forced out of business so the airport can award a $15 to $20 million contract to one large company.
The small shuttle company owners say if the plan goes through, there is little doubt that SuperShuttle, which is owned by an international conglomerate, will be the dominant company at the airport. An attorney for the smaller companies says without competition, the remaining companies will be able to charge customers more for lower-quality service. It will also mean that as many as 300 well-paid jobs for dispatchers, office support, and drivers will be lost.
"If this happens, it will close me out, and all of my workers will lose their jobs," says Majed Dajani, co-owner of Quake City Airport Shuttle Service, which has 22 employees. "It really makes me sad. We are like family here, and it's very difficult to let your family go, all because of one greedy company."
Beyond that, hotel concierges, who rely heavily on shuttle van service, argue that SuperShuttle already charges more. For a family of four traveling from the airport to downtown San Francisco, SuperShuttle charges $57; Quake City charges $42.
This will be the third time since 1993 that the airport administration has attempted to shut down the small-business operators to make way for a larger company, says Lafayette-based attorney Daniel Baker, who has represented airport passenger carriers for more than 50 years. If the Airport Commission approves the plan, he says, SuperShuttle will almost certainly dominate because it has the vans, employees, and resources to transport the estimated one million SFO passengers who use such services each year. In addition, airport administrators already give SuperShuttle preferential treatment, giving it all the prime loading zones closest to the terminal exits.
There is a lot of money at stake, and the shuttle companies that can afford it have hired some heavy hitters to influence the Airport Commission. Door to Door Airport Express, the fourth-largest company, has hired former Mayor Willie Brown, while SuperShuttle has retained the services of Platinum Advisors, one of the state's most expensive and influential political consulting firms. Sources say former state Senate president pro tem, John Burton, may be entering the fray on behalf of Lorrie's Airport Shuttle, which is the second-largest company.
This is one more strike against the smaller companies that can't afford the hefty price tag for the city's influence peddlers. "SuperShuttle has very deep pockets," Dajani says. "If you put all the other companies together, they don't have the pockets of SuperShuttle."
SuperShuttle was bought by France-based Veolia Environmental Services in 2006. According to SuperShuttle's Web site, Veolia's transportation division controls passenger services in 27 countries and has 120 locations in Canada and the United States.
SuperShuttle executives insist they are also in the dark about the proposed changes. "All we're trying to do is understand what changes the airport wants to make," senior vice president David Bird says. "And if there are fewer carriers, it does not mean prices will go up for lousier service. That is absolutely incorrect." He adds that if SuperShuttle does get the airport permit, it would likely hire some of the drivers who lose their jobs, provided they meet company standards.
The 11 shuttle companies at SFO range in size from a fleet of four vans to SuperShuttle's 140. Airport officials say service varies among companies, and travelers are confused by the array of curbside services. SFO officials would prefer a model similar to airports in Phoenix and Sacramento, where SuperShuttle is the only carrier; or Los Angeles International, where SuperShuttle is the larger of two carriers.
The airport is mandated to meet 100 percent clean fuel standards by 2012, and the fewer businesses at the airport, the easier it will be to bring them into compliance, officials say.
Deputy airport director Tryg McCoy says customer complaints about shuttle service are "frequent and alarming." Last week, he asked the Airport Commission to approve a meeting with all of the shared-ride carriers to come up with ideas for improvements. The primary goal, McCoy says, is to reduce the number of carriers so they can be managed for consistent standards of service and appearance. "My goal is to do what's right for the customer," he says. "We are trying to get people to look at this from different perspectives, but it is not the intention of the airport to issue 11 permits. It's unmanageable. We clearly want fewer companies."
McCoy says the airport will ask all interested shuttle services to submit applications this summer, and the airport could have just one or two companies by early next year. But Baker cites a 1998 airport-funded study that found that SFO has one of the most efficient and affordable shuttle service operations in the world, and says the complaints McCoy cites are limited to the airport and do not reflect overall service.
In fact, many city concierges say it's critical to have a variety of choices for hotel guests, who frequently order a shuttle van at the last minute. Holiday Inn Golden Gateway concierge Aida McGeachin says SuperShuttle has too many layers of bureaucracy. When she calls to arrange a pickup, she gets a recording and often has to wait on hold. When she finally speaks to someone, they have to coordinate with local dispatchers.
"That's why I use Quake City so much; when I call, somebody answers," says McGeachin, who uses three companies, including SuperShuttle. "I just don't understand why the airport would deprive someone of a living when they are doing such a good job and providing such a good service."