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Sea-Tac airport may allow Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to start picking up passengers if new rules are passed.
Sea-Tac airport does not allow Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to start picking up passengers.

Uber says tens of thousands of Seattle travelers walk out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport each month and pull out their phone to hail a ride — only to realize that’s the only place where they can’t use the apps they rely on to get around every day.

The company — which has butted heads with local governments across the country — says it has been told for months that new rules to eliminate exclusive taxi agreements were on the way in Seattle. But now it’s tired of waiting.

You can use UberSELECT to get home from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
You can use UberSELECT to get home from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

“It is indefensible that TNC [transportation network company] drivers, like those operating on our uberX platform, are uniquely unable to pick up passengers at Sea­Tac —­ even as those same drivers safely drop off thousands of passengers at Sea­Tac every week,” Uber’s Seattle general manager Brooke Steger wrote in a letter to the port commissioners that was obtained by GeekWire on Wednesday.

The letter didn’t indicate that Uber will begin defying the ban, like fellow ride-sharing company Lyft has done in the past, but it did demand immediate change.

“Now is the time for the Port of Seattle to permit TNC operations, and provide the transportation options and level of service that riders expect,” Steger wrote.

Update: The Port of Seattle responded to GeekWire’s request for comment regarding the letter on Wednesday afternoon, saying the organization is looking at a range of options right now and is “optimistic” it will reach an agreement soon. Here is the Port’s complete statement:

“The priority of the Port of Seattle is to provide excellent customer service to the traveling public. Current ground transportation options serve the public with a variety of pre-arranged and on-demand services for travelers.

The port is looking carefully at new agreements with a range of transportation services including traditional metered cabs, flat-rate cabs, limousines and the app-based TNC’s such as Uber and Lyft. At the same time the Port of Seattle Commission has the responsibility to provide fair and comprehensive services addressing the needs of travelers within the physical constraints of the airport’s roadways and transportation infrastructure. Balancing those interests is a challenge for Sea-Tac and many other airports around the nation.

We are optimistic we can reach an agreement soon.”

This week’s letter marks the latest escalation in what has been long-running debate. Lyft and Uber are allowed to drop off passengers at the Seattle airport, but can’t pick up riders because of an existing contract that only allowed Yellow Cab to pick up arriving travelers. That deal, which required the cab company to pay a minimum of $3.67 million or 13 percent of its gross revenues from airport pickups, expired in October.

The Port Commission, which controls the regulations, met in both May and September to discuss changes that would allow Uber and Lyft at the airport, but the ban still remains in place today. Uber has gone so far as to hire outside taxi services to pick up users who request rides at the airport, but that’s just a temporary fix.

In the letter, Uber says the ban often forces drivers who drop customers off at the airport to drive back to Seattle without any passengers. That costs them money, Uber money, and the city money since the company would be contributing a portion of revenues like every other taxi service at the airport.

“For months, the Commission and Port administration have told Uber that it was just a matter of time until pick­ups were authorized ­­— that an agreement was just around the corner,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, both staff and the Commission have delivered that same message several times: an agreement would be finalized in April, then June, then August, then October at the latest. October has now passed, and we appear no closer to a resolution. Instead, we are told to tell drivers and riders that they need to wait yet again.

Here is Uber’s complete letter to the Port of Seattle commissioners.

November 17, 2015

Dear Commissioners,

I write on behalf of Uber Technologies, Inc., to urge the Commission to authorize drivers affiliated with transportation network companies (“TNCs”) to pick up passengers at Seattle­Tacoma International Airport (“Sea­Tac”) immediately. Since the July 2014 passage of an ordinance in Seattle and King County that authorized TNC services, drivers have provided millions of safe and reliable TNC rides throughout the metropolitan area, allowing thousands of drivers to earn an income and hundreds of thousands of riders to get where they need to go. Sea­Tac’s inaction has resulted in those same riders and drivers being denied access to the exact same safe and reliable transportation that is available throughout the metropolitan region.

As we have previously expressed to both you and the airport administration, it is indefensible that TNC drivers, like those operating on our uberX platform, are uniquely unable to pick up passengers at Sea­Tac ­­ even as those same drivers safely drop off thousands of passengers at Sea­Tac every week. For months, the Commission and Port administration have told Uber that it was just a matter of time until pick­ups were authorized ­­ that an agreement was just around the corner. Unfortunately, both staff and the Commission have delivered that same message several times: an agreement would be finalized in April, then June, then August, then October at the latest. October has now passed, and we appear no closer to a resolution. Instead, we are told to tell drivers and riders that they need to wait yet again.

The facts are compelling:
● TNCs have been regulated in the City of Seattle/King County for a year and a half, but the Port has yet to authorize TNC pickups. By comparison, the Port of Portland moved quickly to authorize TNC operations within three weeks of an ordinance passing in the City of Portland.
● Tens of thousands of visitors and residents of Seattle open the Uber app each month seeking a TNC option at Sea­Tac, and cannot access the service that they seek.
● The Port’s inaction has a direct and negative impact on TNC drivers’ earning opportunities, as they drop off riders and leave Sea­Tac without a passenger. Every week, more than 10,000 TNC trips on the Uber platform drop off passengers at Sea­Tac and are left to drive 14 miles back to Seattle or 25 miles back to Tacoma with an empty car. This amounts to millions of miles in the last year ­­ and costs drivers hundreds of thousands of dollars in gas and wear and tear on their vehicles. This also results in negative environmental impacts.
● Of course, TNCs would contribute their fair share of revenue to the Port, meaning that the Port has missed out on millions of dollars in revenue that could have gone to improving the ground transportation footprint at Sea­Tac.

We have been told and understand that the Port is simultaneously seeking to address other, unrelated issues involving other ground transportation providers that currently operate at Sea­Tac. But it is fundamentally unfair to rely on issues relating to other industries ­­ especially industries that are allowed to continue operating at Sea­Tac in the meantime ­­ to punish TNC drivers and residents and visitors to Seattle who expect the option to seek a TNC ride from the Airport.

Uber has been a fair party while the Port has addressed other issues involving ground transportation at Sea­Tac. We respect that the Port has a mandate to improve these service offerings, but Uber fundamentally rejects that other platform and transportation options, including those which currently continue to operate, are limiting TNC entry. Now is the time for the Port of Seattle to permit TNC operations, and provide the transportation options and level of service that riders expect.

Sincerely,

Brooke Steger

General Manager

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