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Is There a Good Solution to the Uber Crunch at Airports?

Heading for the LAX-it. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Earlier this month, I landed at McCarran Airport in Las Vegas and got out my phone to call an Uber. I was instructed to proceed across the airport roadway to a pickup area in a parking garage, where my driver would text to tell me what parking stall he was in.

I got to the pickup area, and there was a problem: I didn’t have any cell reception, which is probably why the airport had hung up banners in a parking garage with instructions for how to log on to the airport Wi-Fi. So I did, and I messaged my driver to say I was there, but the messages didn’t go through, presumably because his cell phone wasn’t working. So, like the many confused tourists around me, I wandered the garage looking for the car with the license plate listed on my phone.

Eventually I found my Uber car — an Infiniti, which made things a little easier than if I had been looking for a black Toyota Camry — and as we waited in the slow-merging traffic to get out, my driver groused that they had just moved the passenger-pickup area a couple weeks ago, and the new location wasn’t working out so hot.

Like most normal humans, I want to get out of the airport as fast as possible after my flight lands. My ideal model is to call an Uber as I walk off the plane and have the car pull up just as I step out to the curb. The problem is that’s what everyone else wants to do too, and if we all call our Ubers at once, that can mean so much congestion on the airport roadway that nobody gets out rapidly. And this has created a challenge for airports, Uber and Lyft: How to arrange pickup so people get out quickly without getting in each other’s way.

Transportation-network companies like Uber and Lyft are in many ways more technologically advanced than traditional taxicabs. But app-dispatched ride technology is inferior to manually hailed cabs in one way that is important at places like airports: It requires each driver to find a specifically assigned passenger, rather than picking up whichever passenger the driver finds first. That means drivers must weave across each other’s paths to get to the right spot at the curb where a particular passenger is standing; they often must spend time idling, looking for their passengers; and then they must pull out in a different order than how they are physically lined up along the curb.

Uber and Lyft pickups aren’t just more time- and space-intensive than taxi pickups would be; they’re also — because of their many logistical advantages — more numerous. That’s all fine if you’re at an airport that’s not busy, or if you’re at an airport that happens to have an enormous amount of curb space relative to the number of gates, such as Dallas–Fort Worth. But at airports with low curb-to-passenger ratios — Los Angeles International being a prime example — all that Uber-related weaving and standing and merging can lead to horrendous airport-roadway congestion.

“Airports weren’t built with Uber in mind,” says Rachel Cargo, who oversees airport operations for Uber in the eastern U.S. “We have a suite of things we can work with them on, aimed at producing the best customer experience while working within the unique constraints at each airport.”

Increasingly, airports have been deciding that those constraints mean Uber pickup needs to move away from the curb to a place where drivers and passengers can have more paved space to find each other without congesting the airport roadways. Just this week, both Boston Logan and LAX have joined McCarran, moving pickups farther away from terminals and into parking areas. In Boston, that means a walk across a pedestrian bridge into a central parking garage. But in Los Angeles, you’re probably going to have to take a shuttle bus.

Los Angeles Times transportation reporter Laura Nelson was on the scene for the first day of “LAX-it”, as Los Angeles airport officials are calling the surface parking lot east of Terminal 1 where you must go if you hope to board an UberX, Lyft, or taxicab. Nelson found annoyed drivers and passengers, and I can see why: Citing airport officials, she said it typically took passengers ten minutes to reach the LAX-it lot from their terminals on Tuesday, and then another 18 minutes to board an Uber or Lyft car. Delays got worse throughout the day, even though Tuesday is generally a relatively light travel day. Two weeks before the shift, Uber had warned airport officials the LAX-it lot wasn’t big enough and would lead to huge delays as people try to leave the airport.

But it’s important to remember that the old system for leaving LAX also sucked. In the olden days (that is, before yesterday), Uber cars would snake through heavy traffic to pick you up at the departures curb, then sit in more traffic on the way out. I could usually get off the airport campus in less than half an hour, but a longer wait was not unheard of. The long-standing difficulty of getting in and out is why I considered LAX to be America’s worst major airport before I’d even heard the word “LAX-it.”

Still, could there be a way to make it easier to leave LAX, rather than just shifting the mess?

Personally, when departing the airport is a nightmare, I look for alternative exit strategies. At LaGuardia, which is beset by construction, I think the best way to leave the airport now is on a city bus. Even if you don’t want to take transit to your final destination, just board the first bus that comes, get off once you’ve left the airport, and call an Uber to wherever you’re standing. (Of course, once you’re on the bus, you might find taking it to the subway is your fastest route into Manhattan.) At LAX, it’s possible to walk off the airport campus to a nearby hotel and call your car there, though Uber warns that the area is likely to become a real mess if lots of passengers do this, so don’t tell anyone I told you.

Cargo, the East Coast airport manager at Uber, notes that the company is constantly working with airport authorities to refine their pickup systems. At Chicago-O’Hare, they worked together with the airport to re-stripe the airport roadway to improve utilization of the curb, directing passengers to be picked up in areas that would otherwise be lightly used. At JFK, they added pickup points on the departure level and added messages in the app to encourage passengers to board at departures during the times of day when the arrivals level is busiest. The company also tells me they’re working with McCarran to fix the cellular dead zone I experienced.

But there’s another innovation both Uber and Lyft have been testing that improves pickup by making their vehicles behave more like traditional taxis. This is PIN-based pickup, where customers request a car and, instead of being shown a particular car to find, are given an identification number. They then get in a physical queue and share that PIN with the driver they find at the front of the queue. As Cargo puts it, this improves “throughput,” or the number of passengers who can board in a given area within a given time. The company first rolled out this feature for crowded events like Coachella, and now it’s in use at some airports.

Unfortunately, LAX-it had its rough first day even though Uber is using the PIN technology at LAX. Maybe the issue really is the size of the lot: Higher throughput won’t fully relieve congestion if there still isn’t enough space to board. Or maybe they just need to work out some kinks, and as the airport makes changes and drivers get used to the new system, LAX-it will start to work better.

There is one other way to manage airport congestion: pricing. Historically, we don’t charge people for driving on the airport roadway, because it’s not considered a rivalrous good; if the airport isn’t congested, my presence on the roadway doesn’t cause any problems for you. But airports often do charge fees for taxi, Uber, and Lyft trips, which serve in part to encourage people to arrive and leave by methods that don’t cause congestion. Airports could raise those fees to reduce traffic, or they could improve transit access (as an ongoing construction project at LAX should do by 2023) so more passengers find it attractive to leave the airport other than in a car.

But LAX has also created an effective two-tier pricing system to control traffic on the airport roadways. If you want to ride an UberX, a standard Lyft, or a taxi, you will have to head to LAX-it and wait in line. But if you call an Uber Black car or Uber SUV, you can still get picked up right at your terminal — while enjoying the traffic reduction that comes from 15 percent of the vehicles that used to arrive at LAX getting shunted to LAX-it. Uber Black was already about twice the cost of UberX, and the price gap may only grow as LAX passengers are tempted to buy their way out of LAX-it hell.

Nelson, the transportation reporter, notes that airport officials are gearing up for this Sunday, the week’s busiest day for arrivals, to see how LAX-it holds up under stress. It so happens I will be one of the arriving passengers at LAX this Sunday, so I will be part of the problem, but at least I’ll be able to report back on my firsthand LAX-it experience.

Pronounced like “Brexit,” not like “laxative.” You say all the letters in “LAX,” as the airport’s public address announcer does when she wishes you “an LAX-ceptional day.”
Is There a Good Solution to the Uber Crunch at Airports?