Bill Zehnder can't find a cab. On a springlike mid-February afternoon, the Michigan man has flown into Kansas City International Airport for a pheasant-hunting convention. Shuttle vans, buses, limousines and cars course through the sun-drenched passenger-pickup area of Terminal B. But where are the taxis?
"You can't figure it out," Zehnder says. "They should be right here."
But they never are, and that's by design.
Unlike most major airports, KCI doesn't allow cabbies to line up outside terminals. And no one is on-site to guide unfamiliar visitors, such as Zehnder, to the courtesy phones that would connect them to a taxicab dispatcher.
Several hundred feet from the terminals, isolated from passengers, in the shadow of KCI's 250-foot-high, air-traffic-control tower, is the airport's taxicab dispatch building. From that height, the orange, yellow, blue and maroon cabs in the parking lot look like spilled jelly beans.
The feeling inside the dispatch building is as joyless as the waiting room of a free clinic. Fares are first-come, first-served, so taxi drivers arrive early in the morning to get a slot near the top of the list. They check in with a dispatcher, who sits behind a thick-glass window, the kind you see at gas stations in sketchy neighborhoods. The dispatcher adds the drivers' three-digit identification numbers to a queue, which is displayed on a flat-screen monitor hanging on a wall. And then drivers wait, sometimes up to 12 hours, for their numbers to blare through a speaker. (When they return from a trip, the process starts over.) Many days, they're lucky to get two fares.
Eighty drivers, almost all immigrants, kill time playing cards or playing checkers with poker chips on faded boards. Others stare at laptop computers. A few sleep, despite the din of dozens of conversations. A fight breaks out on Jerry Springer, which plays on a muted television sitting atop an unlit Pepsi machine.
It's easy to see why Gammachu Mixicha prefers to sit outside, at a stone picnic table. Mixicha, a 34-year-old U.S. citizen who has driven cabs in the city since immigrating from Ethiopia in 2006. He explains why he and a loose collection of about 250 cabbies, called the Kansas City Taxi Cab Drivers Association, are suing the city of Kansas City in federal court to change the way cab permits are issued.
He lays out the cabbies' case for shifting away from a business model in which a few cab companies own all of the city-issued permits and lease them to drivers. He envisions a system in which drivers own their permits.
"All we're asking for is one permit for each individual driver," Mixicha says as traffic whirs by.
The city says that's not going to happen.
Nine cab companies own the city's 547 taxi permits. The lawsuit, filed February 1, alleges that this arrangement gives the companies "a fiefdom-like control on the taxicab market." Cab companies then lease those permits (and sometimes vehicles) to cab drivers for weekly fees, ranging from $160 to $470.
The city of Kansas City wants to cut the number of drivers to 500, through attrition and by declining to issue new permits. A city ordinance also requires any operating taxi company to hold at least 10 permits. The drivers argue that this requirement denies individuals and small groups of drivers the opportunity to run their own cab businesses. They say this gives the nine companies an unfair advantage, forcing drivers to pay whatever fees the permit owners demand.
Pay for airport cabbies can be low. The lawsuit alleges that cabbies often spend up to 17 hours a day waiting to hear their numbers called. Most fares are between $40 and $60 (the jackpot fare runs to Overland Park and can bring up to $75). Drivers pay a $3 fee to KCI for each ride they pick up. (Airport officials say the fee pays for the dispatch system and maintenance for the building.)
Cab companies also take a share when passengers pay with credit cards. The fee covers charge fees and defrays the cost of charge disputes, which can be expensive and a common occurrence when customers sober up and don't remember taking a cab.
After subtracting gas costs and maintenance, drivers say, they're lucky to clear about $40 most days.
The lawsuit, filed by St. Louis attorney Mark Goodman, seeks an injunction to stop the city from enforcing the ordinance, instituted in 2000. It claims that allowing driver-owned companies to obtain permits or reallocating permits currently owned by other companies would benefit customers, the city and drivers by increasing competition.
"The problem is that the [companies are] worried they're going to lose these drivers that are working as slaves," Mixicha tells The Pitch. "That's where the conflict is coming."
More drivers wander over to vent as Mixicha talks about the lawsuit. They cut each other off and talk over one another with their own complaints. Mixicha quiets everyone and says the ideal outcome for the drivers is a co-op that would allow them to compete with the bigger companies.
Last October, the drivers took their concerns to the City Council. However, city leaders weren't interested in changing the regulation.
In a letter dated November 3, 2011, council members Melba Curls, then chair of the council's Taxicab Sub-Committee, and Dick Davis, then vice chair of the Transportation Sub-Committee, dismissed the drivers' concerns.
"We have reached the conclusion that the existing system of regulating taxi permits functions well for the City, the industry and the taxi cab operators and its users," they wrote. "We do not feel there is a need to make any substantial changes at this time, as we would like to let the market decide issues such as these."
The lawsuit hasn't changed the city's position. In a response to the lawsuit, city attorneys deny the drivers' claims that the ordinance violates the Equal Protection and Due Process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
David Park, director of the Department of Neighborhood and Community Services, which oversees taxi permits, says the quality of cabs was low prior to the city's permitting system. And there were safety and cleanliness issues.
"Nobody could really make a profit because there were so many cabs," Park tells The Pitch. "When they capped this, the idea was to let that drive the quality and professionalism of the cab.
"The cab companies themselves have stepped up and been very aggressive in taking charge and taking control of those complaints and making sure they're resolved in a positive way," Park says.
Park says not a single permit from a cab company has been revoked due to ordinance violations in his five years on the job. He adds that he has received just one official complaint from a customer in that time.
He argues that giving out permits to individual drivers wouldn't ease the cabbies' problems: "Part of their own lawsuit says they, at times, wait for up to 17 hours at the airport. So double the number of people, does that mean you have to wait a day and a half to get a fare?"
Mixicha and the drivers association counter that even if more cabbies flooded the market, they wouldn't have to pay the overhead of weekly lease fees. For instance, by not paying the commonly charged fee of $260, they would save $13,520 each year.
Park suggests that a better strategy for the drivers would be to stop waiting for fares at the airport.
"There's nothing that prevents them from working the downtown," Park says. "There's nothing that prevents them from working the casinos. There's nothing that prevents them from working on the sports venues in town or the Westport or the Plaza or whatever. It takes a little more effort to hustle around and understand the way the community works to get in a spot ... to get the consumer. But that's a choice that they make."
Drivers say they have little choice but to wait for airport fares. Kansas City's largest cab company, Yellow Cab, run by Kansas City Transportation Group CEO Bill George, has exclusivity contracts with six of Kansas City's most lucrative spots: Crown Center's Westin and Sheraton hotels, downtown's Crowne Plaza and the Hilton President, Riverside's Argosy Casino, and the Plaza's InterContinental.
"That's the problem," Mixicha says. "He controls the whole city."
Although the drivers' lawsuit doesn't seek immediate changes to the dispatch system at KCI, airport officials are committed to keeping cabs out of sight. In the mid-1980s through the 1990s, cabs could wait in designated zones of KCI. But airport spokesman Joe McBride says it led to an ugly competition for fares, with cabbies waiting at the most lucrative terminals or sneaking into the baggage areas to solicit fares, essentially cutting in line, irritating both travelers and the drivers who played by the rules.
"It was just not a good situation for our visitors," McBride says.
KCI's narrow design also puts idling vehicles in close proximity to terminals and airplanes. This makes parked vehicles a security threat. McBride says drivers shouldn't expect change.
"I would think that we're not going to be supportive of going back to the way it was," he says.
Mention the lawsuit to Bill George, and the CEO of the Kansas City Transportation Group answers with a nightmarish vision.
The smooth-talking transit mogul, whose company holds 300 taxi permits — more than half of what the city licenses — suggests a dystopia where cabbies engage in Thunderdome-style combat for airport fares.
He says that's how it used to be. He recalls a similar lawsuit in the mid-1980s, which he says led to the city deregulating the taxi industry, allowing drivers to obtain their own permits and wait at terminals. Passengers never knew how much they would be charged, and drivers were so desperate for fares that they would fight in front of travelers.
"We scared the hell out of the passengers," George says. "We pretty much sent a message: Don't take a cab from the airport because it's ungodly expensive, and they'll fight, and the cabs were terrible."
Drivers and taxicab companies had no incentive to improve customer service, because permits were so easy to get.
"Because there was no profit motive in the business," George says, "there was a glut of cabs. Nobody reinvested in their cars, so the cars got older. Nobody upgraded their dispatch systems. Nobody did any marketing. Nobody did anything. And the cab business became horrible."
When the city instituted the current regulations, it set the fares and required cab companies to own 10 permits. George explains the 2000 change: "Originally we wanted [the requirement to be] 25 cabs, and the reason for that is simple: You're supposed to provide citywide service."
George knows that lone drivers can't compete with the Kansas City Transportation Group's Lydia Avenue complex of garages, offices and car wash. But his infrastructure benefits drivers and customers, George says.
In one room of the company's office building, he shows off a massive flat-screen monitor that displays a map similar to an air-traffic-control display. Every Yellow Cab vehicle in the city is depicted as a colored icon on the map. Green cabs are available for trips. Pink ones are en route to pick up passengers. The turquoise are on trips with passengers. Drivers' speed and locations are tracked, allowing the company to identify cabbies who speed and run up fares with circuitous routes.
The real-time monitoring allows Yellow Cab to send the nearest taxi, shortening wait times for customers and downtime between jobs for drivers, who are directed to nearby fares. This reduces their "deadhead" time, the time they spend returning to fare-rich areas after dropping off passengers in a suburb.
George says this multimillion-dollar dispatch system is precisely why the cab industry runs better with the nine companies holding all of the permits. (He says many of his drivers make a decent living; some, he claims, earn $100,000 a year.)
"If you don't have a network, and you're not tied into a system like this, you're on your own," he says. "And you're sitting there waiting for a trip, hoping someone will call you on your cellphone."
George argues that the drivers are working against their own cause with the lawsuit. In 2009, George says he proposed a compromise between the City Council and the airport cabbies to the city's Taxicab Sub-Committee: Drivers with odd-numbered permits would work odd-numbered calendar days, and those with even-numbered permits would work even-numbered days.
The summary of George's proposed compromise says 112 cab drivers check in at KCI most days. Those drivers split 205 fares, for an average of 1.83 fares per day. (KCI's McBride could not confirm if this was still an accurate figure, but he said 200 rides a day is a commonly cited number.) Cutting the number of drivers sitting at the airport in half would earn drivers the same amount of money each week in half the time. "Even though you would work only half as many days, you would get twice as many trips on those days," George says.
Non-airport days could be spent scouring the city for fares, which has the potential to increase the drivers' weekly pay.
George says the drivers weren't interested in his plan. "It's fear," he says. "The perception is, if we suggest it, then it automatically must be good for us, which is bad for them."
George sounds exasperated at times. He wonders why the drivers won't consider this plan or lobby the smaller cab companies to join forces and pool resources in order to compete head-to-head with Yellow Cab. (Nearly all of Yellow Cab's 300 permits are in use; George says Yellow could add about 10 drivers.)
George is confident that the lawsuit will fail. He angrily disputes claims, such as the lawsuit labeling Yellow Cab's annual gross revenue as "annual income." The lawsuit doesn't account for the company's overhead (insurance, large water bills, and salaries for mechanics and office employees).
"The crime here that's been committed is that lawyer took the money from those drivers and put that out," George says. "It's so easy to tear down because it is factually incorrect."
Downtown Kansas City is clogged with Big 12 Tournament traffic the morning of Friday, March 9. Ary Hama Amin, president of the Kansas City Taxi Cab Drivers Association, predicts a good weekend for drivers.
He works his immaculate white 2005 Lincoln Town Car between buses and pedestrians and pulls in front of the Hilton President, one of the Yellow-exclusive hotels. He idles a few minutes, long enough for a valet in a red jacket to hop out of a Lexus and give him a dirty look. Two minutes later, a Yellow driver parked at the hotel blasts his horn at Hama Amin, who moves on.
Hama Amin, a 30-year-old U.S. citizen from Iraq's northern Kurdish region, says he makes maybe $17,000 a year working for City Cab. It's the second-largest cab company in KC, with 125 permits, but its drivers can't wait at downtown's poshest, biggest hotels. Exiled by Yellow's exclusivity deals, drivers such as Hama Amin decamp to the airport or the Northland. They gamble that KCI's typically longer fares pay better than downtown's more numerous but cheaper trips.
Late on this Friday morning, the driveway of the Westin Crown Center, another Yellow-exclusive hotel, is chaotic. A bright-orange Oklahoma State University bus has just cleared the entryway, and dozens of visitors rush around. Hama Amin has pulled up to show a journalist around the forbidden zones, not to find a fare. But he looks tempted when a doorman flags him down. A woman staying at the hotel wants Hama Amin to pick up her friends at KCI and bring them back to the hotel.
"They don't want to take the Yellow?" he asks the doorman.
"She wants the Lincoln."
Hama Amin agrees to pick up the passengers for $50. He is planning a trip with his wife and their 2-year-old son to see Hama Amin's ailing grandmother in Iraq. He needs the money.
The doorman sees an opportunity in the arrangement, too. "Take care of me, now," he hints. Hama Amin hands him a $5 bill through the car window. More overhead.
As he waits for the customer to get cash out of the ATM, Hama Amin says his days behind the wheel are numbered. When he returns from Iraq, he wants to try a different kind of business. Maybe he'll open a Middle Eastern restaurant, he says. But first he wants to help the next generation of immigrant cabbies earn better wages.
"I'm not going to be in this business for long," he says. "We're going to have an election soon, and I'm probably not going to be their president." If the lawsuit fails, he adds, drivers will probably strike.
Cash in hand, he drives north again through tournament traffic. It takes him 15 minutes to make it two miles, to a gas station at East Sixth Street and Grand. He puts $40 in the tank. The trip to and from the airport is going to burn $15 of that gas. He slides into the driver's seat again and heads back to sunny Terminal B, where his passengers are waiting.