Controversial airport shuttle contract nears approval

Atlanta City Council voting on deal with SuperShuttle.

After four years of controversy over shuttle service to and from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the Atlanta City Council is set to vote Monday on a contract with national operator SuperShuttle.

SuperShuttle’s contract, if approved, will allow it to launch “shared-ride” service later this year for the city’s central business district — essentially to and from downtown, Midtown and Buckhead.

But residents in Cobb, DeKalb, Gwinnett and anywhere outside of the city of Atlanta’s central business district will not be able to book SuperShuttle’s blue vans.

There are smaller local shuttle firms operating in other parts of the city and suburbs. But amid an outcry by some of them contending the national competition could hurt their firms, Hartsfield-Jackson has a moratorium in place preventing SuperShuttle from getting a permit to operate anywhere beyond that area.

That’s different from SuperShuttle’s operations in many other big cities, where it can pick up a wider swath of customers along the way and take them to the airport.

“You see them in most major cities,” said traveler Joe Hammell, who lives in Brookhaven and has taken SuperShuttle in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. When traveling with his wife, Hammell said he sometimes uses SuperShuttle and counts on its service to “get us to wherever we need to go. The only downside is if they’re doing a milk run and you’re No. 10, you may be on there for a while.”

SuperShuttle will charge the current fares of $16.50 from downtown, $18.50 from Midtown and $20.50 from Buckhead to the airport for at least the first 90 days of its service, according to the proposed contract.

The four-year contract is the result of a political compromise that came after the shared-ride shuttle service went through four years of turmoil — from the shutdown of one operator to criticism of political cronyism involving an interim operator, followed by a shuttle crash that led the airport to call off the award of the contract to a new operator.

When the airport sought to finally resolve the issue earlier this year and award the contract to Arizona-based SuperShuttle, other local shuttle firms that operate service to the airport loudly opposed the move, saying the bidding process put local businesses at a disadvantage.

That’s because SuperShuttle — a large, well-capitalized subsidiary of global firm Veolia Transportation — could afford to submit a much higher bid to win the contract for the central business district — $455,000 for the first contract year.

SuperShuttle, which operates internationally, is also a formidable competitive threat because it can heavily advertise its service.

SuperShuttle regional vice president Thomas Gahan said “when people travel throughout the United States, they look for” the company’s brand. He said SuperShuttle plans to partner with the Delta and Southwest frequent flier programs, as well as Expedia and Travelocity.

Many of the local shared-ride shuttle firms are little known and don’t have a national reservations system like SuperShuttle’s — making it far more difficult for them to compete. They worried that SuperShuttle would use the central business district contract to gain a foothold in Atlanta, then later seek to expand all over the metro area.

But in the past couple of months, airport officials managed to assuage the concerns of some of the other shuttle operators.

Vic Bolton, a spokesman for local shuttle operators, said “some of the industry folks were really pushing the city to make sure they enforce the boundaries of the current agreement.”

After years of hand-wringing over the shuttle contract, the city council transportation committee approved the contract Wednesday on a 4-1 vote. Approval was amazingly swift with little discussion — the product of recent behind-the scenes negotiations among airport officials and local ground transportation businesses.

No members of the public commented on the matter at the meeting, even though local shuttle operators and others at previous meetings had organized to make lengthy comments in opposition.

According to airport spokesman Reese McCranie, the moratorium preventing SuperShuttle from going beyond the central business district will only be lifted once the airport has reached “an equitable agreement among all stakeholders,” which include existing transportation companies currently providing service. He added that discussions are ongoing.

“People were worried about being put out of business,” said Darrell Anderson, owner of interim shared-ride shuttle operator A-National Limousine. Anderson, who was vocal in raising earlier concerns about the bidding process, is an associate of Mayor Kasim Reed and has invested in property with him. But, he said, “with the new leadership at the airport, it seems they were really concerned to make sure issues are addressed.”

The new leadership includes Miguel Southwell, the interim airport general manager who three weeks ago was named by Reed to the permanent position leading the world’s busiest airport.

Not everyone is happy with the contract. Hayat Choudhary, who owns Atlanta Airport Superior Shuttle and was one of the losing bidders for the contract, said he plans to protest the award to SuperShuttle.

Some of the smaller competitors have also pointed to SuperShuttle’s safety record, noting a fatal crash involving a SuperShuttle van near Washington Dulles airport a few years ago. Ario Keshani, vice president of business development for SuperShuttle parent Veolia, said the company has “programs and policies in place to improve safety as much as humanly possible,” including training for all drivers.

Hammell, the SuperShuttle customer, said he thinks having the company in Atlanta will “raise the bar,” adding that “it’s been a negative, the fact that we’ve not had what I would call national competition.”

While no ground transportation operator technically has a monopoly at the airport, Hammell said he feels that “for too long, the taxis and shuttles have had a monopoly at this airport, and we’ve suffered because of it.”

“I’m sure there’s an argument that’s been made about people’s livelihood,” he said. “It’s a cozy arrangement between all of these guys.”

For SuperShuttle’s part, Keshani said that “in most cities, we try to cover as much of the city as possible,” but for now in Atlanta, the company is focused on the central business district.

“We are really laser-focused on it,” he said.