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.)