Van ban: Shuttle service gives up airport contract

When two women started an airport shuttle service in 1998, they knew they would be traveling a rocky road to success. Now, four-and-a-half years later, their original business plan has run out of gas amid allegations from taxi drivers that they never followed airport regulations.

"We have never been the problem," says Amy Griffith, co-founder of Van-on-the-Go shuttle service, whose airport contract expired on April 30. "The problem is that we exist," she says, referring to the acrimony between her business and the taxicabs that compete for airport service.

Van on the Go signed a three-year contract with the airport in the fall of 1998 but was unable to get its operating license from the Department of Motor Vehicles until spring 1999. The contract included a two-year option to renew, but when the time came to sign the renewal in April, Griffith says she and her business partner, Helen Plaisance, "wanted to curtail things a little," by vacating a required booth inside the airport and staffing only the van out front.

Bill Pahuta, the airport's director of operations, says Van on the Go "wanted certain concessions" that the airport was unwilling to meet.

"We had every intention of renewing their contract," he says. "We still want a shuttle," Pahuta adds, "because we need to offer passengers the most services we possibly can." The Van on the Go shuttle service– with a flat rate of $15 to anywhere in the city– was an attractive and affordable option for many travelers.

But keeping a shuttle depends on whether any company can meet the Airport's rules.

After it became clear that a long-term relationship with Griffith and Plaisance was unlikely, the Airport, Pahuta says, offered Van on the Go a month-to-month contract to continue operating as the airport searched for a replacement shuttle. Van on the Go declined.

"They wanted us to pay for the right to park out front, but we wouldn't have been allowed to take walk-up customers," says Griffith. "We can pull up to pick up our reservations anyway– why should we pay for it?"

The change in their business' status can be chalked up to two things, Griffith says: September 11 and pressure on the airport from taxicabs.

"After 9/11," Griffith explains, "we had to have somebody inside and outside the airport; it changed our payroll, and our business dropped." Then there were the taxis, who Griffith says had been "circling like sharks" since Van on the Go arrived on the scene.

Paranoia? Hardly. In the spring of 1999, a group of independent taxicab owners, represented by local lawyer Bill Anderson, descended on the licensing hearings in Richmond in an effort to block the new business. Their argument was allegedly insufficient local demand. "We ran the demographics," Anderson says.

The taxi drivers won some concessions. "They were not to be taxis," says Anderson. In other words, Van on the Go had to rely on reservations for pick-ups. In addition, the company had to pay a percentage of its income to the airport authority and to erect an illuminated sign at a booth inside the airport terminal. They met this last requirement, Griffith says, only last summer because until then they had not been able to afford the sign's $2,000 price tag.

Taxis, also feeling the tightening in the travel industry, claimed that Van on the Go gained an unfair advantage because it was Airport sanctioned– but got to play by their own rules while the airport turned a blind eye.

The primary complaint from taxi drivers is that Van on the Go was "proselytizing" in the terminal, says Anderson, pulling business away from the taxis.

But Ernest Brown, owner of Skyline Cab, says that Van on the Go never harmed the taxis' airport business.

"Some of the cabs are more of a threat to cab business than Van on the Go because of the way they carry themselves," says Brown, recalling certain cab drivers "sitting around sleeping in their cars, smelling bad, and wearing three- to four-day-old clothes."

But Anderson disputes such characterization. Taxi drivers are contractually required to keep their vehicles clean and in good repair. He claims Van on the Go's vans are neither.

Griffith says the airport's inspection record speaks for itself. "In the four years we've operated, we had only one request for repair from the airport," she maintains.

Skyline's Brown stands by Van on the Go, insisting that the taxis' aversion to the shuttle service is nothing less than a "personal vendetta." To his fellow cab drivers, he says, Van on the Go is "not taking the business; you're giving them the business."

But lawyer Anderson disagrees with Brown's assessment. In addition to Van on the Go allegedly soliciting inside the terminal, he says they have left vans unattended, a post-9/11 contractual no-no for both the shuttle and the taxis.

Griffith is aware of both accusations, but says if she's guilty of it, so are the taxi drivers. "Need a taxi, Ma'am?" is a familiar refrain inside the terminal, she says.

The one and only time she left her vehicle, Griffith insists, was in spring 2002 when she walked toward the baggage claim to help a passenger with his luggage.

"I was gone for maybe 10 seconds," she says. When she returned, a cab driver had contacted the security officer, who demanded that Griffith "circle" her vehicle, a punishment intended for taxis to cause them to lose their place in line.

"It made no sense," Griffith says, "so I refused."

The end result? A 30-day suspension. Although the penalty was reduced to a letter of reprimand, the incident fed Griffith and Plaisance's realization that their business plan was not working. The airport's Pahuta declines comment on specific incidents.

After four years, Griffith says, she's tired of the struggle. Rather than continue to pay steep fees for the "stickers" that enable her to park her van in a front spot, Griffith says she and Plaisance have decided to overhaul their business. They've given up their terminal presence (though much to some taxi drivers' chagrin, the Van on the Go sign remained up at press time), and now, like any other person coming to fetch an arriving passenger, they can only pull up to the airport as their passengers' bags arrive at the baggage claim.

But Griffith says she and Plaisance can carry on without the airport's help. "We're the official shuttle of the Courtyard Marriott," Griffith says proudly, adding that other hotels and UVA provide a steady source of passengers.

"We're very optimistic about our future," she says.

 

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