Users of mobile app-based transportation services like Uber, Lyft or Sidecar may not know that the driver picking them from the airport is operating illegally. The NBC Investigative Unit went undercover and found drivers ignoring airport transportation rules. The Investigative Unit even found drivers without valid licenses, insurance and driving unregistered cars.
Car services like Uber and Lyft that use online platforms to arrange rides are known as "transportation network companies," or TNCs. When TNCs operate at San Francisco International Airport like a taxi, they’re technically breaking the law.
“You have to have certain permits and certain state authorizations to pick up at the airport, otherwise you are trespassing,” said San Francisco Police Department Commander Richard Corriea.
Yet NBC Bay Area’s undercover cameras found plenty of drivers openly cruising for fares.
“It’s a gray zone, you know,” one Lyft driver told us when we asked if it was legal for him to pick up travelers at SFO.
Corriea said that there’s simply nothing grey about it. “TNC drivers are not allowed to come into the airport and pick up passengers,” he said. “Ride service drivers shouldn’t operate here or at any airport in California without a valid permit.”
Corriea said it’s a safety issue. “We want to know who those drivers are. Are those vehicles safe? Are they insured? Are they properly permitted by the state?”
The permitting process that taxis and limousines currently go through includes drivers displaying the name of their company on the car, having proof of insurance and picking up pre-arranged rides.
Part of what makes Uber, Lyft and Sidecar in violation of these rules is that the rides are not pre-arranged. After this story was published, the CEO of Wingz contacted the Investigative Unit. He said that Wingz has been in regular converation with SFO and is currently in the process of applying for the necessary permits. Read his full statement[pdf].
Corriea said a first-time violation of the rules is a misdemeanor offense. In just the last three weeks, airport officials at SFO identified more than 295 TNC drivers without permits, and some who did not even have licenses. They also found drivers breaking their own company’s rules by borrowing cars or sharing company issued phones with drivers not approved by the TNC. Officials at Oakland, San Jose, and Los Angeles airports also issue citations to TNC drivers without permits. LAX police have written over 200 citations to UberX drivers in the last four months for illegally picking up passengers at the airport.
Police said that some of the UberX drivers they have encountered have criminal records. One driver was a registered sex offender and was at the airport to pick up a 22-year-old woman who was traveling alone.
The Investigative Unit has found Uber X drivers throughout the country with criminal records, even though Uber insists their background checks are stricter than taxi companies and claim to have better insurance policies should something happen.
“‘Who is driving the car?’, and ‘is it a safe vehicle?’ I think are all important questions that one would ask getting in a car,” said Corriea. “That's why we regulate these things.”
The heads of Uber, Lyft and Sidecar disagree with SFO’s permit requirements. In a letter to San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee last week, they argued that SFO is asking for too much access to its customer’s confidential information and complain that the airport will only allow TNC drivers to drop-off passengers on airport grounds.
They asked Mayor Lee to “facilitate a discussion between the airport and the TNCs”.
NBC Bay Area sent a copy of the letter to the Mayor’s office and The Investigative Unit reached out to Lee for comment. His spokesperson, Christine Falvey said in an email, “Mayor Lee has always been a strong supporter of the sharing economy because of the benefit it brings to everyday San Francisco residents. Ridesharing is an innovative transportation alternative for many City residents and SFO customers. The mayor is supportive of SFO's proactive efforts to permit and regulate rideshare companies to provide access and ensure customer service and public safety. Mayor Lee defers transportation policy decisions about airport transportation issues to his highly respected Airport Director John Martin and the Airport Commission.” The Mayor’s office has confirmed to NBC Bay Area that they have received the letter from the ride service companies.
For now, TNC drivers continue to operate at the airport. Police warn the public not to use the ride service companies... A public that they feel, may not even realize includes drivers breaking the law.
“You put yourself at risk,” said Corriea. “You don't know whether the driver has a licenses or not, whether that car is insured, who that driver is.”
NBC Bay Area requested official statements and on-camera interviews with all the companies mentioned above. Despite providing much of the information and topics NBC Bay Area wished to cover, they all declined.
The California Public Utilities Commission has been tasked with regulating the ride share companies and plans to hold a meeting on June 4th with representative from SFO to try and get TNC drivers permitted like taxis and limousines.