By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Nassau Airport Development Company (NAD) yesterday defended proposed ground transport provider fees as essential to ending a “chaotic experience” for travellers, despite a backlash from taxi drivers.
Jan Knowles, NAD’s vice-president of marketing and communications, confirmed that the Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA) operator plans to levy fees on taxi drivers, limousine and tour operators every time they enter the airport’s “commercial lane” to pick up fares and clients.
The fees, which will be imposed from November 1, 2017, will levy $1 per pick up/fare on taxi drivers, with $2 and $3 being imposed on limousine drivers and tour operators, respectively.
Ms Knowles, in an e-mailed reply to Tribune Business inquiries, said the revenues raised would be used to better manage the pick-up and dropping-off of passengers at LPIA.
She added that the traveller experience in arriving at, and exiting, LPIA was the “most frequent complaint” that NAD received, and the operator needed to bring this in-line with the ‘world-class’ impression the airport - and overall tourism product - were seeking to give.
“Beginning November 1, 2017, Nassau Airport Development Company will implement a ground transportation provider fee at Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA),” Ms Knowles explained.
“Taxi, limo and tour operators will pay $1, $2 and $3, respectively, for each trip they make through the airport’s commercial lane. This is not a passenger fee; it’s a driver or operator fee for accessing the terminal.”
Explaining how the revenues raised will be used, Ms Knowles added: “Fees will be used to provide proactive curb management, improve the passenger experience and maintain the accommodations provided by NAD - and used by waiting drivers - at the airport.
“The most frequent complaint received at LPIA relates to the chaotic experience upon leaving the terminal and arriving at the curb for transportation. NAD has been determined to seek improvements to the passenger experience at LPIA. Proactive curb management contributes to a positive first impression for visitors, and this is crucial to the strengthening of our tourism offering.”
Ms Knowles said NAD had started exploring the implementation of ground transportation provider fees in 2012, but held off for five years following industry concerns.
“We held full consultative meetings with ground transportation providers, and determined that we would defer the implementation,” she explained. “We are now at a point where we must move forward in order to provide the level of service at the curb that is commensurate with a world-class airport.
“Transportation providers also agree that it is critical to the industry and their business that these improvements are made. The goal is for NAD’s ground transportation team to greet arriving visitors, provide accurate information about the available transportation options, and work with members of the Road Traffic Department and Royal Bahamas Police Force stationed at LPIA to enhance the management of the curb, ensure enforcement of traffic regulations and provide a world-class arrival experience.”
NAD held its first meeting with taxi drivers over the proposed fee yesterday, and another is scheduled for today. Several taxi drivers present voiced their opposition to Tribune Business following the meeting, with the Bahamas Taxi Cab Union’s president estimating that 75 per cent of drivers were against the fee.
Philip Watkins told Tribune Business many drivers thought it unfair that they will have to pay a fee to pick-up passengers, and want NAD to “be more creative” in exploring alternative revenue-raising mechanisms.
Calling on the airport operator to collect all due tenant rents, Mr Watkins said taxi drivers would be more accepting of the proposed fee if NAD “sorted out” what his members view as unfair competition from tour and livery operators, and SUVs.
He argued that these vehicles were “actually stealing taxi drivers’ fares” by competing for call-up business with them at LPIA, instead of picking up pre-booked clients.
Until this “hostile situation” was corrected, Mr Watkins said of taxi drivers: “They don’t agree to give one cent out of that [their fares] for nothing in the world with all that crying and fighting to get a fare.”
“As simple as it seems, it’s going to create chaos at that airport,” he added of NAD’s proposal. “The chaos is going to come about because what has happened for several years now is that you have rival driver factions attempting to work that airport, and actually stealing taxi driver fares.
“Tour companies and livery drivers and SUVs. They shouldn’t be applying at the airport; they should be applying at the office. At 5pm, when NAD’s security officer leaves and the Road Traffic officer leaves, it’s chaos in front of the guests.
“It’s dog eat dog, and not a good atmosphere for welcoming guests; a very hostile situation that needs to be sorted out right away. That’s part of the reason the drivers don’t want to buy into a $1 fee. If the drivers are able to get their fares, and are called up into an area where it makes sense, they would be more accepting of the fee.”
Mr Watkins said he had informed drivers of NAD’s proposed provider fee at a meeting last week. “More than 75 per cent of the drivers disapprove of the fee,” he estimated to Tribune Business. “Even if it was 50 cents, they don’t want to pay it. The drivers who work that airport from morning to night don’t feel it’s fair for them to pay that.
“The drivers don’t think it’s fair to pay $1 every time they pick up a fare, because they feel they’re providing a service, and it may be three-four hours before they get a fare. They feel NAD should be more creative in finding other forms of revenue, and seeing to it that those renting shops in the facility pay their portion of rent.”
Mr Watkins said the union will “have to have a meeting” with NAD to further discuss its proposal, possibly in the coming week. However, taxi drivers who attended yesterday’s meeting argued that the airport was “a public area” where they should have a right to pick-up business.
One driver, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Tribune Business that NAD’s proposed fees were akin to “taking back” the 20 per cent fare increase granted by the Christie administration just prior to the May 10 general election.
Suggesting that he was being asked to pay for the privilege of having a livelihood, the driver added: “I sometimes come down here with a quarter of a tank of gas, having given my last change to my daughter for school lunch.
“A $30 fare starts my day. Now you want me to pay $1 per job. Something needs to be done. We’re public service drivers, and we pay the Government.”
He added: “There might be a big thing out here because this is the livelihood of these people. People come here at 4am in the morning, sleep in their cars to get a job early. Now you want a buck from me just to get a job.”
Richard Johnson, head of the Public Service Drivers Union (PSDU), told Tribune Business he had been unaware of both yesterday’s meeting and the NAD proposal until contacted by Tribune Business.
He said he would raise the issue in a meeting he was scheduled to have today with Frankie Campbell, minister of transport and aviation, adding that he had been aware NAD had looked at the initiative “some time ago” but never moved forward on it.
“One of the things I don’t like about NAD is they go to the taxi drivers generally, without approaching the unions that are supposed to be representing the drivers’ interests out there,” Mr Johnson said.
“Consequently, when we have a backlash nobody seems able to say what the official position is, and NAD is left to do what they do. If we want to have any type of order and discipline in the industry, you have to contact the official representatives of the drivers. They go ahead and implement these increases without making any contact with the official representatives.”