Uber, Lyft cleared for pickups at Atlanta airport

The Atlanta City Council voted Monday to approve a measure that will legalize and regulate Uber X and Lyft ride-share pickups at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport starting this winter.

The council voted 14-1 to pass the city ordinance, which drops a requirement in an earlier airport proposal for fingerprint-based background checks of ride-share drivers. Instead it allows companies to use their own private background checks.

Uber and Lyft had both threatened to stop serving the world’s busiest airport if the fingerprint requirement were put into effect, saying such checks were cumbersome and would hurt driver recruitment. The ride-share companies scored victories on that and other measures in the legislation passed Monday.

Under the new system to take effect Jan. 1, 2017, the airport will charge a $1.50 fee per ride for pickups at the airport by ride-share services — the same fee paid by taxis.

Companies like Uber and Lyft that use private background checks will also be subject to an additional per-ride security surcharge of $2.35 per ride, making it a total of a $3.85 surcharge for passengers.

The airport says ride-share pickups at the airport are currently illegal and has cited hundreds of drivers, though some still make pickups. Until Jan. 1, Atlanta police will continue to “enforce the laws on the books,” according to the city.

When the new ordinance takes effect, each ride-share company will also pay an annual permit fee of $50 per vehicle, up to $100,000 per year.

The airport plans to set up a ride-share assembly area, and drivers will not be allowed to use the cell phone lot.

“Ultimately, this is about providing additional transportation choices for our passengers and we believe this will be an added benefit to the customer experience at Hartsfield-Jackson,” said Roosevelt Council, the airport’s interim general manager.

The shift away from a fingerprint requirement marks a turnabout by the airport and some city council members. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed also previously said he supported fingerprints for background checks, but added that there are “other sides to this conversation.”

The one council member who remained in favor of fingerprints and voted against the measure was Felicia Moore.

“I do think there are areas in here that do not keep the level playing field and have not been properly vetted,” Moore said. The mayor’s administration introduced its proposed ordinance several hours before the committee voted on it last week, and substituted that with another version shortly before the full council voted on it Monday.

Taxi and limo companies and their drivers have objected to the city’s proposal for ride-share pickups at the airport that would allow drivers to forego a fingerprint-based background check, saying that cab and limo drivers for years were required to be fingerprinted.

“We want to be able to compete on a level playing field,” said Atlanta Checker Cab Co. president Rick Hewatt during comments at the council meeting.

Legislation passed by the state of Georgia in 2015 allowed taxis, limos and ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft to use either fingerprint-based background checks or private background checks. Taxi and limo companies say they continue to have their drivers fingerprinted.

“In light of terrorism that’s going on and everything else,” said Jeff Greene, president of Greene Classic Limousines and the Greater Atlanta Limousine Association, “we feel that anybody coming to the airport… should have the most extensive, the most accurate background checks.”

Uber’s public affairs manager for the Southeast, Nick Juliano, pushed for passage of the city proposal, saying “It’s time to formally bring Uber to the airport.”

Another measure in the legislation could significantly reduce the number of cabs qualified to pick up at Hartsfield-Jackson: It will put a 7-year cap on the age of cabs that pick up at the airport, down from 10 years now.

That would affect about 60 percent of cabs and “put them out of business,” said Steve Belcher, who represents the taxi cab industry.

Moore said she thinks the requirement could have been phased in “so that small business owners and taxi drivers and others can keep up with the pace.”

But, “if you want to kick out a whole lot of taxis, then this [measure] may be the way to do it,” Moore said before voting against the measure.