Fare’s fair: Ride-share companies flying under radar at Valley airports

HARLINGEN — Disruptive new innovations in technology are not sparing the Valley’s airports.

Officials at Valley International Airport said last week they were frustrated with ride-sharing companies going rogue, operating at the airport without a contract or oversight. VIA currently has an exclusive cab contract with Platinum Transportation.

But Monday, airport officials reported a breakthrough, saying they had reached a tentative deal with the ride-share company Lyft which had been operating at the airport with an unofficial status.

Lyft and Uber are ride-share companies which have had a disruptive effect on traditional cab companies but also have opened up reasonably priced transportation options for consumers. Using their mobile phone apps, customers can set up a ride with drivers operating their own personal vehicles, cutting the companies’ costs significantly.

“We’ve engaged on several occasions,” Marv Esterly, director of aviation, told the airport board last week. “I did send everything on to Lyft particularly, because they’re the only ones who are actually getting engaged. On 6/18 we sent them a copy of the contract and I had a follow-up including another copy of the contract on 6/27 and then again on 7/12.”

“Still no response,” he added. “We talked about this at the last meeting and it’s a big concern to the community and we put together a letter, the mayor put together a letter, and sent it out as well, and we have yet to have a response.”

“Obviously very impressed,” deadpanned Mayor Chris Boswell, who is a member of the airport board.

But that changed Monday, Esterly said via email.

Airport rides

As of now, none of the three major airports in the Valley — Brownsville-South Padre Island, McAllen or Harlingen — has contracts with Lyft or Uber, Esterly said.

At many other airports nationally, Uber and Lyft have cut deals to provide transportation service.

At Richmond International Airport in Virginia, for example, Uber has agreed to pay a per-ride access fee.

“When entering the airport to pick up passengers, you must use the Commercial Vehicle lane. Follow the signs to access this lane,” Uber tells its drivers.

“You will be charged a $5 access fee for use of the lane, which will be automatically reimbursed to you on your weekly pay statement,” the guidance reads.

Cabs, fed rules

Valley International contracted with Platinum Transportation in late 2016 and service began in February 2017 after passenger complaints about a lack of reliable cab service at the airport. So far, Platinum has invested more than $200,000 there, airport officials say.

Under the Platinum airport contract, only its cabs can take people from the airport to their destination. Any cab company can drop passengers off at the airport.

In an email follow-up to last week’s meeting, Esterly said Monday that transportation companies like cab companies are regulated by the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation. Airports and cruise ship terminals are the only entities that can require a permit to operate.

Yet federal law also stipulates that airports are required to charge a fair-market value for non-aeronautical activity, like ground transportation for passengers.

“We developed an agreement that would require TNC (transport network companies) to pay $2 for drop-off and pick-up at VIA,” Esterly wrote. “It is important to us to offer the best service to our customers and equally important to treat our tenants in a fair manner.”

On Monday, after more than two months of waiting for a response, the saga with Lyft appeared to be reaching a conclusion and the principals hope to have a permanent deal signed quickly.

“We are in active discussions with Valley International Airport with the goal to establish an operating agreement to provide travelers with access to affordable and reliable Lyft rides and flexible earning opportunities for those who drive with Lyft,” Campbell Matthews, Lyft communications manager, said via email. “We look forward to soon reaching an agreement that works for riders, drivers and airport officials.”