As summer travel season picks up, some people flying into Birmingham may take a taxi to leave the airport. That ride though isn't always a pleasant one. WBHM has discovered cases of airport taxi drivers skirting city rules, even refusing to offer service to passengers if they live close to the airport.
A Horrible Ride
Lee Meadows travels frequently, at one point flying once a month for work. He used to park his car at the Birmingham airport, but now that he lives in Crestwood, which is a neighborhood just a couple of miles south of the airport, he takes a taxi.
"It's cheaper for me to take a cab than it is to leave my car in long term parking," said Meadows.
Meadows says he never has any issue when the taxi picks him up at his house. But trips home have been full of problems.
He says more than half the time when he gets a ride from the airport taxi stand it's a bad experience, such as a dirty car or a rude driver. But one trip in April really sticks out.
"About halfway through the trip I noticed the meter wasn't on," he said. "That was my first red flag."
Meadows says when they arrived at his home, the driver told him it was a standard, flat fee of $15 dollars. Flat fees are only allowed in Birmingham if the driver and passenger agree to it before the trip starts. Meadows says when he questioned the fare, the driver became agitated.
"He told me he had been waiting in line two hours and that it wasn't worth his time to take somebody a short distance like I was going home," said Meadows.
Meadows says at that point he knew he wanted to report the incident.
"I asked to see his ID," said Meadows. "And he got even more confrontational."
He says the driver refused to show his ID. Meadows just wanted to get out of the cab. So he gave the driver $15 dollars and asked for a receipt.
The driver handed him a receipt, but the name on it didn't match the name on the taxi. Meadows says he didn't know what would happen next. Concerned about his safety, he just got out of the cab.
A Wider Problem
Lee Meadows says he tried to register a complaint, but couldn't figure out how. He looked on the City of Birmingham's website and the airport web site, but couldn't find any information about taxis. He called the cab company and they didn't know where to direct him.
Feeling stuck, he put a message on the neighborhood online listserv to see if his was an isolated incident. What he heard were similar stories -- drivers turning off the meter and charging a higher amount.
Independently, WBHM was told of drivers taking circuitous routes which runs up the meter. The problems aren't just in Crestwood.
Sarah Bettinger lives in Norwood, another neighborhood near the airport.
"You start down the line of taxis and they're aggressive trying to get business until they hear that we're going to Norwood," said Bettinger. "Then they really do say, 'no, not going to Norwood.'"
Bettinger says she was refused service half-a-dozen times before giving up trying to take a taxi from the airport.
All of these things including turning off the meter, refusing service, and even being rude, is against city ordinance. Lee Meadows says his desire to follow up is not just about his experience.
"What are visitors experiencing? What's this like for somebody who this is their first impression of Birmingham?" said Meadows.
What the Drivers Say
No airport taxi driver was willing to speak in a recorded interview, but several described frustration. Drivers do wait for hours for a customer. Once he takes that passenger, even if it's a short trip, he has to go to the back of the line. They say most drivers operate legally and those who work out of the airport understand it's a bit of a lottery. But that doesn't mean short trips and the smaller fares aren't irritating.
Among several taxi companies which serve the airport, the only one willing to give an interview is Birmingham Yellow Cab. Ellis Houston is president of company which owns Yellow Cab. He says he has heard these stories from customers and drivers.
"Unfortunately it's not new to me and it's very troubling," said Houston.
Houston says on the rare occasion one of his drivers is found to be acting improperly, he terminates the driver's contract. But he adds there's nothing stopping a fired driver from going to work for another company.
Who's Enforcing the Rules?
Ultimately it's up to the Birmingham Police Department to enforce city rules. Lieutenant T.E. Smith with the business compliance unit says police do daily inspections. For instance, they check that cabs have running meters and are clean. But he says he's never heard these stories of poor service from airport.
Smith says they haven't received complaints about this. If they did, they'd investigate. He does concede people may not know it's police they should contact. The police web site is little help.
"Like any web site it's under construction and constantly being upgraded," said Smith. "I'm not certain there's a link that will get them what they needed in that particular case."
There appears to be no information about filing complaints on the Birmingham Police web site.
That apparent information void and poor taxi service leaves Lee Meadows frustrated.
"I don't think I'm asking too much even though I do live a short distance from the airport," said Meadows.
He says if visitors to the city are equally frustrated, that's even more concerning.
~ Andrew Yeager, June 11, 2014