Uber, Lyft drivers push for Atlanta airport access

More than 150 Uber drivers and others gathered at Atlanta City Hall on Wednesday to push for rules on ride-share pick-ups at the Atlanta airport, though a planned requirement for fingerprint-based background checks remains a sticking point.

The City Council’s transportation committee listened to comments from more than 30 people in the first airing of the airport’s proposal to legalize and regulate ride-share operations by Uber X and Lyft.

Blue-shirted Uber drivers dominated the crowd, which also included pink-shirted Lyft drivers, taxi and limo drivers, industry leaders and lobbyists. So many people turned out that the meeting was moved to the full council chambers, which quickly filled. More gathered in an overflow room with a video link to the meeting.

“I think people should have an opportunity to have a choice when they’re at the airport,” Uber driver Phillip Branch said. Fellow driver Trejon Smith said he thinks existing limits on ride-share operations are a way for the airport to protect cab and limo businesses from new competition.

Airport management earlier this month issued proposed regulations to allow ride-share pickups. The airport says pick-ups are not allowed now, but the loosely-enforced rule has confused and frustrated travelers.

The airport’s rules call for fingerprint-based background checks. Uber and Lyft say such checks are time-consuming and cumbersome and would limit their ability to recruit drivers. They say if the requirement stands they may not serve the airport at all.

Airport general manager Miguel Southwell said when introducing the proposal that fingerprint checks with the Georgia Department of Driver Services “gives everybody confidence in the system … It really should be a welcome part of the process.”

Cab and limo drivers already undergo fingerprint-based background checks, as do other airport workers, airport officials note.

Trevor Theunissen, Uber’s public policy manager for the southeast, argued such requirements are a “burdensome… bureaucratic process” that would be too onerous for its mostly part-time drivers.

“We have to have enough drivers on the road at any given time to meet the demand we’re seeing,” Theunissen said. “Otherwise, [passenger] wait times are going to be 10 or 15 minutes and people will be really upset.”

Uber also contends the airport does not have the authority to require fingerprint-based background checks.

The company cites a bill passed by the Georgia legislature last year that says airports are “authorized to regulate any ride share network service,” with the same process used for limos. The law also says airports “shall accept a for-hire license endorsement or private background check certification… as adequate evidence of sufficient criminal background investigation and shall not require any fee for any further criminal background check investigation.”

Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Reese McCranie said airport officials believe they have the authority to require fingerprints.

Backers of fingerprint-based background checks say they uncover criminal records under aliases and are more comprehensive.

Uber argues that its private background check is comprehensive, including in-person visits to courthouses to pull records.

“Our product wouldn’t be as successful as it is if people didn’t feel it was safe,” Theunissen said.

Lyft representative Lawrence Bell told the council committee that Lyft’s and Uber’s background checks are “just as effective, if not more so, in ensuring safety and security.”

Fingerprints aren’t the only topic Uber and the airport disagree on: They even differ on whether Uber X pickups at the airport are legal today.

Uber contends there are no current regulations that apply to ride-sharing, which is why some Uber X drivers already pick up passengers. But curbside police officers also ticket some of them.

Other elements of the proposal include a $1.50 per-ride fee structure aimed at having ride-share drivers pay the same amount as taxi and limo drivers.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s office appears to be keeping its distance from the ride-share issue.

When committee member C.T. Martin asked for the administration’s position, Reed’s deputy chief of staff, Katrina Taylor Parks, said: “We are not here to comment. We are listening …We are poised to allow the legislative process to take its course.”

The committee meets again on April 27 to debate the proposal, and it may also hold a work session on the matter. A final vote by the full council is not expected before May.

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