- The Washington Times - Monday, December 10, 2001

Taxi driver Mulugeta Yimer whips his yellow 1997 Ford Crown Victoria into an anonymous housing development near Alexandria. The sleepy suburban street reminds him of his fast-fading American Dream.
"I wanted to own my own home. That hope is gone now," Mr. Yimer, an Ethiopian native, tells his passenger.
Like taxi drivers everywhere, Mr. Yimer is struggling.
Business for many cabbies dropped as much as 50 percent in the weeks after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Americans scaled back their travel plans. Fewer executives and tourists on airplanes has meant fewer passengers for taxis.
Things have picked up but are still not back to normal: Business remains 25 percent below normal levels throughout much of the United States, according to the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association trade group.
Local cabbies may be experiencing the slowest recovery.
Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport which generates one-fifth of all taxi revenue in the District was closed for three weeks after the attacks, longer than any major airport in the United States.
Although Reagan Airport has reopened, flights are down sharply. The drop in airport traffic has hurt cabbies, some of whom claim their average take-home pay has shrunk from roughly $350 a week to about $50 a week.
"The businesses are interconnected. If the airport is not busy, there are no tourists. If there are no tourists, we are not busy," says airport taxi driver Bekele Gutta.
Cabbies aren't the only ones feeling the pain. Airport shuttle services the companies that operate the minivans that pick passengers up at home and whisk them to the terminal are getting less business.
Limousine services are also slumping because recession-pinched executives are reducing their travel expenses.
Transportation companies are accustomed to slow business during tough times, but no one was prepared for the fallout of the September 11 attacks, says Alfred Lagasse, executive vice president of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association.
"Business trends usually develop over time. You slowly work your way into a recession and you slowly work your way out," Mr. Lagasse says.
"This is different. Business was good Sept. 10. Then, literally overnight, it became the worst of the times."

Making ends meet
Most taxi drivers are essentially self-employed. They own their cabs, although they pay cab companies for a dispatching service that matches them with passengers.
Mr. Yimer pays Alexandria Yellow Cab Inc. about $150 a week for its service. The fee is called a "stand due" because the company dispatches drivers to "stands" throughout Alexandria where they can find customers. Stands are usually located in parking lots at Metrorail stations, hotels and shopping centers.
Cabbies keep the money they collect in fares. Much of the money goes toward their business expenses, they say.
Mr. Yimer says his monthly car payment is about $280. He says he usually pays about $2,000 a year for insurance, $75 a week for gasoline and $35 to park the cab in his Reston neighborhood.
There are also maintenance costs. This month, Mr. Yimer paid about $220 to have the car's brakes fixed.
Before September 11, Mr. Yimer says his weekly profit ranged from about $450 to about $500. Since the travel slowdown, he says his take-home pay has ranged from $50 to $300 a week.
To make ends meet, Mr. Yimer has dipped into his savings to pay the $770-a-month-rent for the Fairfax County-subsidized apartment he shares with his wife and two children and his brother, who is blind. His wife has gone to work at a nearby 7-Eleven, but that has created a new expense for the family: an $85-a-week day care fee.
Also, since Mr. Yimer's wife now works mornings, he is forced to stay at home until 9:30 a.m. weekdays, when his children board their school bus.
"The taxi business depends on rush hour traffic. I miss the morning rush hour because I have to put my children on the bus," he says.
The business slowdown tends to hurt cabbies more than cab companies, because the companies make their money from the stand dues the drivers pay.
A handful of Alexandria Yellow Cab drivers have had problems paying their weekly stand dues, says General Manager John Muir. The company gave its drivers a 10 percent discount on their dues for three weeks after September 11.
Alexandria Yellow Cab has 212 cars and about 280 drivers. Some drivers share their cabs.
Mr. Muir says he doesn't doubt drivers are hurting, but he says it's impossible to know the extent of their suffering because cabbies don't report their earnings to the company.
"We have no idea what they're making," he says.

Seeking help
Talk to virtually any cabbie and you'll hear complaints about the profession.
In the dimly lit garage at Reagan Airport where cabbies wait to be dispatched to the terminal, drivers complain about the competition from the airport shuttle services.
On the streets of Alexandria, they gripe about being treated unfairly by the companies they pay their stand dues to. Some say the companies don't give them a break on their dues when they take time off or have personal emergencies.
Older cabbies gripe about younger drivers, saying they don't respect customers and give all drivers a bad name. The younger drivers gripe about racial strife among their ranks.
The one universal complaint: The government hasn't done enough to help cabbies since September 11.
Since most drivers are self-employed, they do not qualify for unemployment benefits.
Charities have tried to pick up the slack. The Salvation Army has helped many "collateral victims" of the September 11 attacks including cabbies and airline and hotel workers pay their rent, mortgage and utility bills.
The District has encouraged its drivers to apply for low-interest disaster recovery loans available from the federal Small Business Administration. Some drivers say that's not enough.
"[The District has] given us nothing whatsoever," says Nathan Price, chairman of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association, a group that lobbies for D.C. cabbies.
The D.C. Taxicab Commission, which regulates cabs in the District, can force cab companies to reduce the fees they charge drivers during "extraordinary circumstances," according to Sandra Seegars, a member of the commission.
Ms. Seegars said she has urged her fellow commissioners to do this, but they have resisted.
Lee Williams, the commission's chairman, did not return a reporter's telephone calls.
Other city officials stress the city's work to reopen Reagan Airport and boost tourism.
"We see the taxicab industry as an integral part of the city's economy," says Causton Tone, director of legislation and policy for D.C. Deputy Mayor Eric W. Price.
"Every time the city helps the hospitality industry, every time the city helps the tourism industry, we help the taxi industry," Mr. Tone says.
Some Washington drivers praise New York, which is giving its cabbies an extra six months to renew their licenses. The city is also considering a proposal to give drivers of the oldest taxis an extra year before they are required to retire the vehicles.
No drivers or taxi advocacy groups have approached the District with similar suggestions, Mr. Tone says. The city is willing to consider any suggestions, he says.
Although cabbies complain about a lack of support from the government, few are ready to leave the business.
Many drivers are immigrants who say they lack the skills to get better jobs. Other cabbies say they like the independence that taxi driving offers them, even if it's a tough business.
Mr. Price of the D.C. Professional Taxicab Drivers Association says he knows of no drivers who have quit since September 11. Local cab companies say they have had a few drivers quit since the slowdown began, but those drivers either retired or had planned to quit before September 11.

'Are you a citizen?'
For some cabbies, the struggle after September 11 isn't just economic.
Passengers are questioning the patriotism of drivers who look Middle Eastern, something the drivers say didn't happen before the terrorist attacks.
"Everybody asks me, 'Where are you from? Are you a U.S. citizen?'" says Tanwir Rana, an Indian who became a United States citizen in 1988.
The questions hurt, Mr. Rana says. He placed an American flag sticker on one of the passenger windows on his cab after September 11, but says he has displayed flags on his cars for years.
Some passengers have become violent.
Two men attacked a Pakistani taxi driver in Manassas last month, pulling him from his cab and kicking him in the head, according to police. The driver, whom police would not identify, suffered a concussion and superficial wounds.
Similar incidents have been reported in other cities. In Seattle, police arrested a man who reportedly knocked off an East Indian cabbie's turban and pulled out tufts of his beard. In Chicago, two men shattered another driver's window and beat him in the face.
Changed businesses
The travel slowdown has changed the way SuperShuttle International Inc. does business.
The Phoenix company operates the biggest airport shuttle service in Washington. Before September 11, SuperShuttle's blue vans were driven by employees and independent contractors.
SuperShuttle has laid off 100 employees, including all of the drivers it employed directly. Its remaining 100 drivers are all contractors who own their vans.
SuperShuttle says business is down about 25 percent, but it will not disclose specific sales figures. The company is reassessing its business model, says Doug Clark, its general manager in Washington.
"You have to make a prudent decision as to where you go from here. If there's a good side to this, it's that it's forcing us to take a look at what we do. We have to maximize our revenue," Mr. Clark says.
Limousine companies are also feeling the squeeze.
Carey International Inc., a Washington company that provides chauffeured limos and sedans for corporate travelers, said it projects business will be down about 30 percent compared to last year.
The company has tried to take advantage of the public's lingering fears about air travel, though. In October, Carey introduced a new service in which it uses Lincoln Town Cars to transport business travelers from city to city.
For most trips under 250 miles such as Washington to New York Carey says it can deliver passengers virtually as fast as an airplane can, once the waiting periods at airports are factored in. A one-way trip from the District to New York costs about $640, the company says.
"The challenge facing our industry is short term, and we have to do what it takes to weather the storm," says Vincent A. Wolfington, Carey's chairman and chief executive.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide