Sunday, October 23, 2022

Adios San Miguel, Hello Houston, San Francisco, Burlingame, San Bruno, Arcata: Book Review: "Transportation Network Companies And Taxis---The Case Of Seattle" by Craig A. Leisy & Beware Of United Airlines?

Goodbye Mexico, Hello Again USA

I accomplished what I needed to, finishing the editing of my book "To Age 13" but it has come with an unexpected proviso.  Somehow over the years I ended up with two working copies, choosing version two but found I had left out important paragraphs and sentences I meant to include from version one.   If this sounds confusing, it is because I made it that way, taking nearly ten years to complete a project after I had finished the first draft in nine months.  

For those who don't think taxi is intrusive, consider that I have struggled with finding the correct time and space to write over and over again.  It's not that I haven't had incentive to write.   Instead it's that I allowed taxi to be more of a priority than I should have, taxi too often leaving me dead on my feet, disconnected from my brain.   Not a good combination to get anything done, something I will never allow again to reoccur.  

Returning to Arcata before I head back to Seattle, I plan on having everything in their proper places by October 24th or the 25th.   Then it appears I will be back beneath the toplight November 1st more or less.  I will curtail my hours while concentrating upon submitting, something I have generally avoided but not this time.  Time to make it all happen.

Greetings once more from Arcata:

It was an unfortunate, and more than arduous journey from San Miguel to Arcata, which, for those interested, will be outlined at the tail-end of this post.  My postponements were are all due to fog and poor weather conditions at the Eureka/Arcata airport which is actually located north of McKinleyville in a notorious foul weather belt.  Not the best location for an airport to say the obvious.  

Making this all worse was United Airlines' response  to over three hundred unhappy passengers.  What I found is that United employees often act like "governments within themselves," arbitrarily making decisions affecting many individuals minus consequence.  In all my years of travel, and I've been to over 45 countries and territories, the only other time I have witnessed similar behavior was in then communist Hungary and Yugoslavia.   

From my recent experience, United Airlines has a customer service bureaucracy that's out-of-control, whimsically making decisions minus oversight.  I was due to arrive late Wednesday night but eventually deciding to opt out of flying all together, arriving instead by car mid-Friday afternoon.  

It is a modern but not pretty story.  If you are wondering about the title page, Burlingame and San Bruno are two Bay Area cities close to the San Francisco airport, having hotels where I stayed Wednesday and Thursday nights.  But I warn you, the narrative is long, and unless you want to read my sad travails, skip it.  I certainly wish I had.  What a pain in the flying butt!

Book Review: Transportation Network Companies and Taxis---The Case of Seattle, by Craig A, Leisy, Routledge (Taylor & Francis Group) published 2019 (hardback) & 2020 (paperback) 300 pages

Introductory Note:

I've known Craig Leisy a long time, maybe 20 years give or take a year, beginning when Craig was more or less the City of Seattle figurehead for all things taxi regulation.  I believe we first met during one of City of Seattle's silly English efficiency examinations, when the obnoxious cabbie, me, presented as exhibit one for the defense a copy of my poetry volume, "The Greyer Elements."  

At the time I didn't know Craig too was an avid writer and author but as the years progressed, and after attending many of his monthly TAG (Taxi Advisory Group) meetings, we had a friendly "meeting of the minds," and ever since, even after his retirement, have remained in contact.  While we might never agree completely on everything that is crazy taxi, I have always appreciated his sincerity, knowing he always wished Seattle's taxi industry the best of outcomes.  

This attitude, as Craig displays in his book, is a bit rare.  It isn't that others hated taxi, its that they never took the time and effort to understand it.  Craig Leisy has and here it the book to prove it.  I also appreciate that he included an April 2018 excerpt from my taxi blog, which can be found on page 220, proving beyond all doubt that Craig's outlook is to be inclusive.  This book demonstrates that.

The Review:

Before anything else, any potential reader of Leisy's tome upon Uber and Lyft and the taxi industry (Seattle the case example), should understand it was designed to be a textbook and not a quick overview of a serious and scholarly subject.  Mike Issac's 2019  "Super Pumped" might be that but Leisy's book  isn't light, instead dense and esoteric even for a taxi professional like myself.   Mind you, this isn't bad, it is just what the book is, both its strength and weakness, at least for the general reader who is not interested in becoming a student of early 21st Century transportation issues.  

The ten chapter titles quickly display Leisy's intent and focus: Introduction; 1) Definitions and concepts; 2) Economic regulation (1912-1978); 3 Economic deregulation (1979-1983); 4) Deregulation: lessons learned; 5) Economic reregulation (1984-1995); 6) Regulatory revision (1996-2010); 7 De facto economic deregulation (2011-present); 8) TNC vs taxicabs; 9) TNC industry growth (2013-present); 10) Pending issues; 11) The future.  

Now this is great for the classroom and if read from beginning to end, you will be a minor expert upon the subject because its that comprehensive, and for the most part, 98% accurate, Leisy still not understanding how much the professional cabbie makes.  Yes, he has the statistics but no cab driver could live on $30,000 a year in Seattle.  I am reminded of a Seattle Times front page article from many years ago, featuring a cabbie who said his annual take was $8000.00.  Why $8000.00?  Because making more than that meant he had to file income taxes.  Its the rare cabbie who will tell you the truth about what they are earning, official statistics be damned.   Maybe to me but never to you.

 Throughout his book, Leisy makes it clear that what brought the Seattle taxi industry to the brink of collapse was decades of mismanagement, exemplified by this quote taken from the introduction, page 1: "Lack of a sound understanding of the basics is precisely why elected officials continue to make disastrous policy decisions about how to save the taxicab industry."   

Truer word have never been written concerning the taxicab industry, both in Seattle and everywhere in these United States.  Chapter after chapter underlines this point.  This is what happens when you have government officials and their appointed lapdogs sticking their noses into a subject completely alien to them.  They might as well be regulating orange groves on Mars, describing how little most regulators and city council members etc are grounded in planetary taxi.  And the hiring of people directly from the taxicab industry is something they never do---water and oil never mixing appearing to be the prevalent attitude. 

In chapter 7, "De facto Economic Deregulation," on pages 151-154, Leisy presents the kind of idiotic ordinance changes and concessions (table 7.7 Changes to SMC 6.310 by Ordinance 124524 (2014), instituted by the Seattle City Council, allowing the TNC companies (Uber and Lyft) to run free minus any real City regulation of their behavior and standards, while simultaneously doing the same for the taxi industry, lifting the dress code requirement for white shirts and black slacks, mindless responses not based on real industry and customer needs.  One might ask why did they do this, and the answer I think is clear.  Capitulate completely to TNC demands while tossing table scrapes to the feral cabbies, making everyone happy, or at least silencing the rabble occupying the cheap seats.

In chapter 8, "TNC vs Taxicabs." page 182, under the heading, "Below-cost fares," Leisy provides a quote about TNC practice of intentionally undercharging to gain market size, all this due to unfair subsidizing of fares:

"Uber operations are staggeringly unprofitable...and its growth to date must be seen as the result of predatory pricing against incumbents who have lower costs but need to charge fares that cover the entire cost of trips and lack the financial strength to withstand years of below cost pricing subsidized by Silicon Valley billionaires."

Mike Issac's book describes this practice in detail, making it clear just how un-level the playing field was for the taxicab industry.  Leisy often expresses wonder how we cabbies in Seattle survived this unfair competition, and the truth from my own experience is that we were too dumb to understand how perilous our situation was.  And too hardheaded to admit defeat, our hatred of Uber and Lyft fueling our resistance. 

In Chapter 10, "Pending Issues," page 220, Leisy writes a short paragraph of introduction to the excerpt he included from my blog posting of April, 9th, 2018, which is an open letter to then Seattle Council President Bruce Harrell.  Mister Harrell, by the way, is now Seattle Mayor Harrell.  God help us all!

"Joe Blondo, a long-time taxicab-driver who writes a blog, expressed the exasperation of many drivers in the taxicab industry in a recent blog.  He clearly believes that Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell and the other members of the Council, are now attempting to fix the mess they made when they admitted an unlimited number of TNC drivers into the market in 2014.  But the damage has been done and it might be too little too late."

And as I have been reporting in earlier posts this year, Harrell and the City Council continue to coddle TNC drivers while completely ignoring taxicab drivers needs and requirements.  Yes, the. old story continues, ad nauseam.

I'll end with two quotes from Chapter 11, "The Future," pages 269 and 270, expressing how much business the Seattle taxi industry lost, and Leisy's dire prediction which thankfully has not come true, at least not yet.  

Why Seattle's taxicab industry has survived is pretty simple.  Uber and Lyft cannot serve the kind of account business that keeps Seattle cabs busy: medical and school accounts.  Often they are our lifeblood, and without them, as Leisy feared, we might no longer exist.  But another recent factor in our favor is that Seattle's taxicabs are now generally much cheaper than Uber and Lyft, bringing our old customer base back to where it once was.   Since Uber and Lyft have stopped subsidizing their fares, people love taxis again.  And isn't that sweet, an old romance rekindled!

Both of these quotes are taken from the section with the heading "Post-taxicab Seattle:"

"As discussed in the preceding, if the elected officials decide to pursue economic deregulation of the Seattle taxicab industry again, it will most likely put an end to the industry.  During the first 4 years of TNC competition the Seattle taxicab industry lost 56.5% of its business to the TNC industry: from 5,143,552 revenue trips (2013) to 2,234,614 (2017)."

Pretty grim but hey it can only get better, ain't that right?  And here is Leisy's worrisome prediction:

"The trajectory that elected officials have followed since the adoption of Ordinance 124524 in 2014 will almost inevitably lead to the complete collapse of the Seattle taxicab industry by sometime in 2020-2021.  It is likewise expected that the for-hire vehicle industry and the limousine industry will also cease to exist as organized industries.  Of course, the end could come even sooner if we enter a recession.  So the time is ripe for considering what a post-taxicab Seattle will look like."

I am glad to say that Seattle's cab industry, while not totally striving, can not be described as dead, or one wheel in the taxi grave.  We are still alive as an industry, and the same can be said in San Francisco, New York City and other big American cities.  

What Leisy perhaps failed to add to his estimations is how awful Uber and Lyft are, with millions of customers returning to taxicabs because they hate Uber and Lyft and trust taxicabs because they are regulated in a way they can understand.  For many, the TNC companies, especially Uber, are villains to be avoided.  At least for the near future, the taxicab industry's biggest threat is the ignorance displayed by City, County and State governments.  If anybody can kill the taxi industry its them, and as I see it, no one else.

Oh My God! United Airlines

My travel saga began innocently, getting up at 5:30 AM, Wednesday October 19th,  in San Miguel de Allende in anticipation of my 8:30 AM shuttle pick-up to the Leon/Guanajuato Airport, an approximate 1 1/2 drive .  No problem at all until I checked in for my flight, which seemed routine, having been issued my necessary boarding passes and with nothing else to do except wait.  But looking at my passes I noticed something odd had occurred, having been bumped without explanation from my original Houston to San Francisco flight to a much later one, meaning my long layover would be spent in Houston, not San Francisco.  

I went back to the ticket counter and the same agent informed me my original flight had been cancelled. I found that interesting, and if true, why hadn't I been told.?  Adding insult, my small 100 peso metal frying pan was taken away from me when I went through security.  Neither of the employees spoke English while demonstrating how the pan could be used a weapon.  This was the height of absurdity, and having gotten the attention of another passenger, she told the dumbbells to please take it home, as it shouldn't be tossed.

Once aboard the airplane I told an obviously veteran flight attendant about my flight change, and upon looking up my original flight, said it wasn't cancelled, still scheduled to leave at 4:24 PM in Houston.  Upon arriving in Houston, and quickly clearing US Customs, I went to the United customer service desk and was once again set for my original itinerary.  Though once in San Francisco I soon received the bad news that my flight to Arcata was delayed due to bad weather, not cancelled but delayed for a full 24 hours.  

This is an important distinction, a weather delay giving them the excuse to not provide anything for your inconvenience   So after traveling all day and now finding yourself stuck overnight, what is United's response?  Tough, boys and girls, we ain't doing anything for you.   Or at least that was the initial response I got at the San Francisco customer service (disservice?) counter.  And then came the  multiple contradictory responses over the 1-800 United Airlines customer service line.   It is also important to remember that this all occurred over a three-day period, with changing scenarios and characters.   

It is now Wednesday evening and I now know I will not be going anywhere until tomorrow at the earliest.  I am facing either a night in the airport or the unexpected cost of a hotel room.  And there are hundreds of stranded passengers just like me, wondering what they were going to do.  

I asked for a hotel voucher and it was a defiant no, we are not responsible for weather related delays.  Note that even though the flight was cancelled, it was only delayed, meaning all of us trusting United Airline customers were out of luck, having to fend for ourselves.   

I was quite emphatic that my situation warranted a hotel voucher, all of my pleas falling upon deaf ears.   One customer representative was particularly nasty but in the end for all my arguing I was rewarded with two $15.00 food vouchers redeemable at any airport food outlet, this being the first of many examples of what I discovered to be true: that nearly every United employee held their own version of what was standard protocol and how and why they should respond or not.  I found this both remarkable and stunning, an United Airlines kind of operational, contradictory anarchy where no rules are their rules, making them up as they go.  To this minute I have trouble believing it is true but it is, it's how the customer service teams operate.  It's what they do.

My first of four telephone calls to United customer service told me, that since my delay was over 14 hours, company policy was to provide hotel vouchers.  When informing San Francisco agents, they said, no, it's not true.

The second telephone call brought me the good news that she was authorizing a $1000.00 refund for any costs incurred during my delay, saying I would be receiving an official email from United Airlines stating that.  That email was never sent, or it was sent, it was not to my inbox. 

The third telephone call connected me not to the Philippines but Chicago.  She told me no, she knew nothing about that email but told me call in the morning and I would be connected to the United Airlines refund department.

The next morning I called for the fourth time, connecting once again to a Philippines-based agent who said repeatedly that I would be connected to the refund department.  After waiting too long on hold I just hung up.  She called me back and repeated that I would soon be talking to someone.  Again, after a long wait, I hung up.

Returning to the airport, and with the news I would be leaving on a 1:10 PM flight to Arcata, I once again went to the customer service counter to get a new boarding pass.  And sometime during that 15 minute conversation I found that I had been given an online $125.00 United Airline voucher.  Whether it was the Philippines agent or the San Francisco agent responsible for this act of kindness, I don't know but the San Francisco agent said she also wanted to give me a online food voucher though something prevented her from sending it.

In the meanwhile, three flights had been scheduled to get all of us out of there and back to Arcata.  Unfortunately, all three flights were eventually terminated.  One did take off but was unable to land, forcing it back to San Francisco.  My flight reached the tarmac in preparation for takeoff but was called back to the gate where we all disembarked.   By this point it was chaos, with none of us quite knowing what to do.  And that included United, who handled it very poorly, creating more confusion than clarity.  Would there be flights scheduled for Friday, and if so, would we make it Arcata?  No one really knew, and while standing in line once again at customer service, I was told many were receiving hotel and meal vouchers.

Upon speaking to an agent, she said no, no, no, no hotel vouchers and no meal vouchers for anyone.  Oddly, she did schedule me for a next morning flight to Los Angeles, with a connection to Arcata.  Why fly south to fly north seemed nonsensical but despondent I accepted my fate.  And then she whispered to me, "Don't say anything." as she quietly handed me three $15.00 paper food vouchers while printing out my first boarding pass.   Later, when the commotion died down, I went back and a different agent printed out my second boarding pass.

As I was heading to yet another night in an area hotel, "she-who-can't-be-named," anxiously waiting for me in Arcata, called and said she might have found me a ride to Fortuna, a town about 18 miles south of Arcata.  And to shorten this saga, this is how I finally made it back, Cary, my savior, calling me after I had already made into the airport and through security Friday morning, suddenly it making perfect sense to take a guaranteed ride instead of a mystery flight to LA.  

Earlier I had talked once again to the customer service agents and asked what would happen to me if the LA to Arcata flight was cancelled.  They conceded that I would now be stranded in LA, even further from my destination.  That sealed it. I jumped on the BART and met Cary at the 24th & Mission station, he a former San Francisco cabbie.  We were instant comrades.  And yes, I am now in Arcata.  

What a crazy three days!  You can be assured United is going hear  from me, not only about hotel refunds but about their customer service agents.  What the hell is going on with United Airlines?   It's sheer madness!  I will also be complaining to the FAA.  We passengers can't continue to be treated this way, can we? 



1 comment:

  1. We can't keep saying the account calls will keep taxi alive, as it's not Uber or Lyft themselves who will cause them to dry up and disappear, but smaller and newer competition.

    Anyone can start their own medical transport company, and there are lots of new ones out there now in all areas, exceeding Yellow and all King County Cab's reaches. Trained to give better customer service, and be more reactive in all suburbs. So watch those calls decrease over time if they already haven't.

    And next of course are the school accounts being aggressively taken up HopSkipDrive. Using, once again, non commercial personal car drivers, who just so happen to be Uber and Lyft drivers, or could be. They literally have trips from Tacoma to Snoqualmie to the northern suburbs, as well as Seattle of course. Unconstrained by County limits like taxi associations are again.

    And all those drivers needed to be eligible was an easy 1 day class and then a fingerprint test by the company. Too naive or stupid to care they are doing the rides for half as much as a taxi driver would. They even have recruiting commercials on national television ads now, something local taxi companies haven't had in decades or ever.

    Taxi can't just exist as an industry driving in downtown and within City limits. Try yourself to call a cab at midnight to 2am in the City or out, and see if anyone's able to pick you up. Especially from the suburbs. I've heard multiple times from random people on the street and riders gasp saying "Oh wow a real taxi, they're still around?"

    No association or taxi medallion should be allowed to operate unless they are in service 24 hours a day, like a true public service that they are. After all, that's who these medallions really belong to, the City of Seattle and King and other counties. Associations and drivers keep fooling themselves into thinking they're actually theirs.