Uber finds a way at Logan

Ride app service sidesteps law to pick up passengers at airport

Second in a series

UBER, THE RIDE-SHARING app that is gobbling up the taxi business in Greater Boston, is now setting its sights on Logan International Airport despite a state law barring the company’s most popular service from picking up passengers there.

The California company for years has used its app to link its fleet of drivers with passengers looking to go to the airport, but pickups at the terminals were barred by a state law prohibiting personal cars from responding to ride requests at Logan.  Because of the law, Uber’s low-cost UberX service, which relies on drivers using their personal cars, could not operate at Logan.

But Uber has found a way around the law. In a deal worked out with the Massachusetts Port Authority, the company said it would only dispatch vehicles with livery license plates for pickups at Logan. Since Massport considers livery vehicles to be commercial cars, the arrangement satisfies the law’s requirement.

Uber also gained a competitive edge at the airport by allowing its livery drivers to charge less for their service. Uber’s livery service, called UberBlack or UberSUV, is usually far more expensive than the UberX service, but the company is allowing its livery drivers to charge UberX prices, which typically are well below the regulated rates charged by taxi drivers.

Both taxi and Massport officials were unaware Uber was charging UberX prices at the airport, though both agree that the company is operating within the letter of the law.

“That’s kind of a backdoor deal and they should be called on that,” said Donna Blythe-Shaw, a spokeswoman for the Boston Taxi Drivers Association, part of the United Steelworkers union. “It’s one thing to be undercut on the street by UberX, but this is backdooring the taxi driver who has been waiting an hour and a half in the taxi pool for a fare. It’s a shady way of doing business.”

Matthew Brelis, Massport’s director of communications, said the authority does not regulate fares and is only interested in making sure all vehicles abide by state law. “Logan is not opposed to so-called transportation network companies, but state law currently prohibits a private vehicle, such as UberX or Lyft, from picking up a passenger for hire,” he wrote in an email. “Valid cars are in our database; if an UberBlack or UberSUV driver decides to take a job at an UberX rate, that is the driver’s decision.”

In an emailed statement, an Uber spokeswoman said the company is doing everything by the books.

“Uber worked with Massport to ensure Boston residents and visitors have access to safe, reliable rides at Boston Logan Airport,” she wrote. “Uber driver-partners deemed eligible are certified by Massport, and have the required sticker and security badge, enabling them to provide a convenient option to airport travelers.”

For more than five decades, passenger pick-ups at Logan terminal curbs have been limited to Boston cabs under a law pushed through by then-Attorney General Edward Brooke in support of taxi drivers, who were being undercut at the time by gypsy cabs and other cab drivers from outside the city. Because of the law, Uber, as well as other transportation network companies such as Lyft and Sidecar, were barred from allowing drivers using their personal cars to respond to ride requests from the airport.

But Uber has found a way to provide UberX service using its livery service. I recently went over to Logan to test the service. Outside Terminal A, I called up the Uber app on my phone and requested an UberX pick-up to take me to the CommonWealth office on Beacon Street. I got confirmation from Uber that my request was being fulfilled, with the name and picture of the driver, and to meet him in the limo parking area outside the terminal. He pulled up about 10 minutes later in a Toyota Sienna minivan with livery license plates.

The Uber estimate for a pickup by one of their livery services was $38 to $54, while UberX was $22 to $24. When the driver arrived, I confirmed he was charging me the UberX price despite being a registered as a livery. The total cost to my credit card for the ride was $23.83. A cab on the same trip would have cost an estimated $25 to $27 plus tip, although the price could go higher if traffic is snarled.

The driver said he gave up driving a cab in Cambridge so he could make his own hours and use his own car with Uber. In order to pick up at Logan, he registered his Sienna as a livery vehicle, bought a higher level of commercial insurance, paid a $100 fee to Massport, underwent a criminal background check, and agreed to accept both UberX and livery calls, which fetch higher fares even though he uses the same vehicle.

The driver said Uber gives him a financial incentive to ferry passengers at the lower UberX prices.

Asked if he would make as much driving for Uber with all the upfront costs as opposed to driving a cab, the driver hesitated. “I’m not sure but I’m trying,” he said, adding that he worked about 46 hours a week as an Uber driver to equal what he was getting driving a cab in Cambridge part-time.

Logan is a lucrative route for taxi and livery services, both to and from the airport. While ridership and revenues for taxis continue to decline in and around Boston because of the impact of ride-sharing apps, taxi dispatches from Logan have steadily increased. In fiscal 2012, the average number of cabs dispatched each day at Logan was 5,450. In fiscal 2015, which ended June 30, the average number rose to 6,205, an increase of nearly 14 percent. The estimated 2.2 million rides out of Logan, which do not include rides to the airport, represents about 18 percent of the total cab rides in Boston in 2014.

Most of the increase is due to increased passenger traffic through Logan, with the number of passengers at the airport growing by more than 10 percent between 2012 and 2015.

Blythe-Shaw said the Logan numbers paint an inaccurate picture of the Uber effect on the cab industry. She said many cab drivers have abandoned cruising the streets of Boston or sitting at hailing stations in town because of the decline in calls. She said after taxi drivers complete a trip from Logan, they often return empty and go back into the airport’s cab pool, often working 10- to 12-hour shifts just servicing Logan.

“Our drivers are doing more time at the airport and are now just going there because they can’t fight the Uber fight on the street,” she says. “You got to make a living. It is indicative of the impact.”

Uber charges passengers going to and from the airport an $8.75 fee plus toll costs of $5.25 on trips from the airport into Boston. On my trip into Boston from Logan, the base fare charge was $8.83. In addition, I was charged $5.25 for a toll, an $8.75 airport surcharge, and a $1 safe rides fee, for a total of $23.83. By contrast, taxi fares are generally higher, but passengers only pay a $2.25 Massport fee and a $2.75 for tolls driving into Boston. There is no toll but there is a $2.70 charge beyond the fare for taxis going to the airport.

Uber is vague about what its $8.75 surcharge is for and officials declined to talk about it because of an ongoing class action suit in federal court in Boston charging the company with deceptive practices in levying the fee. Because the service uses livery vehicles, Massport charges a $3.25 charge per ride on airport pick-ups, which is deducted from the surcharge.

The Uber driver said Uber deducts the $8.75 from his fee, but Uber officials insist the fee goes to drivers as an incentive to get them to drive to the airport, where they would have to return empty and lose time and money. Because of the lawsuit, no one from Uber would talk on the record.

Attorney John Roddy, who is with the firm Bailey Glasser LLP, which is representing plaintiffs in class action suits in Boston and California over the Uber surcharges, said the company is misrepresenting what the fee is for. The fare detail calls the fee an “airport surcharge,” which Roddy says improperly implies it is a fee levied by Massport rather than Uber.

“You can’t charge a fee that doesn’t exist,” said Roddy. “Most consumers, if not all consumers, read something that says [airport] surcharge, they think it’s a fee by Massport. If Massport charged UberX drivers $8.75 to drop people off at the airport, no problem. But it appears [to customers] to be a fee imposed by the Massachusetts Port Authority when it, in fact, is not.”

The first article in this series can be found here.

Meet the Author

Jack Sullivan

Senior Investigative Reporter, CommonWealth

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.

About Jack Sullivan

Jack Sullivan is now retired. A veteran of the Boston newspaper scene for nearly three decades. Prior to joining CommonWealth, he was editorial page editor of The Patriot Ledger in Quincy, a part of the GateHouse Media chain. Prior to that he was news editor at another GateHouse paper, The Enterprise of Brockton, and also was city edition editor at the Ledger. Jack was an investigative and enterprise reporter and executive city editor at the Boston Herald and a reporter at The Boston Globe.

He has reported stories such as the federal investigation into the Teamsters, the workings of the Yawkey Trust and sale of the Red Sox, organized crime, the church sex abuse scandal and the September 11 terrorist attacks. He has covered the State House, state and local politics, K-16 education, courts, crime, and general assignment.

Jack received the New England Press Association award for investigative reporting for a series on unused properties owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, and shared the association's award for business for his reporting on the sale of the Boston Red Sox. As the Ledger editorial page editor, he won second place in 2007 for editorial writing from the Inland Press Association, the nation's oldest national journalism association of nearly 900 newspapers as members.

At CommonWealth, Jack and editor Bruce Mohl won first place for In-Depth Reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors for a look at special education funding in Massachusetts. The same organization also awarded first place to a unique collaboration between WFXT-TV (FOX25) and CommonWealth for a series of stories on the Boston Redevelopment Authority and city employees getting affordable housing units, written by Jack and Bruce.