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Airport taxi service under state scrutiny

  • DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARADVERTISER.COM
    Taxi dispatchers at Honolulu Airport help connect arriving visitors with cabdrivers near the international gates. The taxi management concession has been run by Ampco System Parking since 2004, but the state is reviewing the arrangement. TheCab has been fighting for years to have the contract put out for bid and filed a complaint in August.
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After a flight from Hilo, Honolulu lawyer Jae Park hailed a cab at the airport.

Alas, he recalled, the driver barely spoke English.

"I told him I wanted to go to Kalihi," Park said. "I knew the street address and he looked confused at first. He started driving, and it seemed like he was going in the right direction. Then I ended up in Fort Shafter."

Park said he noticed the driver had a global positioning system in the cab, and asked why it wasn’t on.

"He just kind of looked at it and said, ‘No,’" Park said. "I said, ‘What do you mean, "No?" Do you need directions?’"

Park said the delay cost him about $5 more than it should have.

Moreover, the driver also did not offer to help with his bags.

"I pulled them out myself," he recalled. "I hadn’t ridden a cab in ages, and this was a terrible experience."

Anecdotes like Park’s have prompted the new state administration to focus close attention on the contract for taxi dispatch management at Honolulu Airport. The review comes as the state anticipates a rejuvenated tourism industry and November’s high-profile Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.

Ampco System Parking has managed taxi service at the airport since 2004, when the contract last was put out for bid.

The number of formal complaints about the company is relatively small.

The state Department of Transportation logged three complaints about Ampco in 2008, 12 in 2009 and nine through September of last year.

The Better Business Bureau lists Ampco as an A+ business and has fielded only one complaint about the company in the last three years.

But Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz says there is room for improvement and that the new administration has made that a priority.

"I would say they’re not meeting people’s expectations in terms of efficiency and customer service," said Schatz. "This is important not just because of APEC. It’s critical that visitors and residents alike are treated well and efficiently at the airport."

According to some of the formal complaints, drivers have been rude to passengers or disregard directions. In one complaint a passenger told the driver to take the H-1 freeway and not Nimitz Highway, but the driver took Nimitz anyway. At least two complaints in 2010 were filed from one driver who complained about other drivers stealing his customers by cutting in front of him.

"On one side of the coin, one complaint is too many," said Steve Choo, Ampco regional manager in Hawaii. "But we look at the ratio, and I think we’re doing a pretty good job, all things considered."

More than 350,000 cab fares a year are taken at Honolulu Airport. That translates to about 1,000 trips a day.

Choo said Ampco addresses each complaint personally and "to the satisfaction of all concerned."

"We always try to be better," he said. "It’s difficult, but we try to do the best we can."

THE NOW-DEFUNCT State Independent Drivers Association ran the concession contract from 1996 until 2003, when it closed, owing the state more than $730,000 in concessionaire payments and interest.

For 15 months from February 2003, Signature Cab Holdings Inc., which does business as TheCab, ran the concession contract on an interim basis. TheCab paid the state a flat fee of $37,000 a month.

In May 2003 the state put out a request for qualifications for the taxi-management contract. TheCab was among the bidders. But about a month later the request was revoked, apparently in response to complaints from some drivers that TheCab played favorites with its own fleet.

In July 2003 a revised request for qualifications was put out, but this time it prohibited bidders with "any affiliation with any taxicab or ground transportation business."

Howard Higa, president of TheCab, said in a recent interview that TheCab operated the concession on a first-in, first-out basis.

The reason TheCab drivers were often called, he said, was because most of the drivers are equipped with credit card machines and also have passes to all the military bases. About

25 percent of the drivers at the airport can take credit cards, and 25 percent of drivers have passes to

military bases, according to the state Department of Transportation.

"Yes, TheCab did call up our cabs because all our cabs are equipped to take credit cards," Higa said. "We call the next credit card cab up, and sometimes it was other cars in the line."

Ampco System Parking won the contract in May 2004. Since then the contract has been renewed annually without being put out to bid.

TheCab complained to the state attorney general’s office in August about the contract being renewed without bids.

In response the attorney general’s office pointed to a state law that states that ground transportation services and parking lot operations at airports do not have to be put out for bid.

"Then why did they go through the hoops of putting out it out for bid in the first place?" Higa now asks.

Higa claims that if TheCab had continued to pay its flat rate of $37,000 a month for airport rent, the state would have received $2.2 million more than what Ampco has paid over the last seven years.

Ampco pays the state based on the number of trips dispatched each month.

Interim state Department of Transportation Director Glenn Okimoto, who took the helm of the second-largest state agency a few weeks ago, said he has yet to look into the issue.

Schatz said the new airports deputy director, Ford Fuchigami, is moving to address the situation.

State transportation spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said with a new administration, everything is being reassessed, particularly the taxi contract.

"It’s definitely high up on the list of things to do," he said. "I know it’s something they’re really looking at, with APEC coming up."

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