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Taxi drivers protest ultimatum at Sea-Tac Airport

The road that winds around Sea-Tac Airport.
Flickr Photo/Ping Li (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
FILE: Sea-Tac Airport

The taxi business ain’t what it used to be.

That's partly why cabbies picketed at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on Tuesday, fighting back against a new ultimatum from one cab company. 

Eastside for Hire, a Tukwila-based taxi business with a three-year exclusive contract for airport service, wants to eliminate 85 taxis from its 405-vehicle airport-taxi fleet — and make  remaining drivers pay $9,000 to stay in the fleet.

Apps like Uber and Lyft, as well as expanded light rail service, have been eating into the cab company's business.

“The pie, unfortunately, is not big enough for all of the cars,” Eastside for Hire general manager Samatar Guled said. “We came up with a way that drivers that want to stay compensate drivers that want to leave.”

Guled said it’s fair to have remaining drivers pay to buy out other drivers, since they're midway through a three-year contract.

“The drivers that remain will basically get the business of the drivers that leave,” he said.

Drivers complained to the Seattle Port Commission — the elected body that oversees Sea-Tac Airport — last week after getting text notifications that Eastside for Hire was considering trimming the taxi fleet.

“This text message notification created uncertainty and fear among drivers,” airport operations manager Jeff Hoevet wrote to Eastside for Hire on April 11. “We request that you immediately stop any implementation of a fleet reduction program until you engage in more discussion with the Port and driver community.”

The next day, the company notified drivers they had five days to choose: take a $20,000 buyout or pay $9,000 each to remain in the fleet.

“Vehicle owners who do not respond will be terminated from airport fleet operation, without compensation,” the notice read.

[asset-images[{"caption": "Eastside for Hire notice to airport taxi drivers", "fid": "144066", "style": "placed_wide", "uri": "public://201804/AirportTaxiNotice.jpg", "attribution": ""}]]"Everybody got upset, and everybody didn’t have enough time to decide,” said Harinder Singh, a driver and a member of Teamsters Local 117 from Burien. “Plus, everybody still wants to work at the airport throughout the contract without having to pay even more money."

Singh said each cabbie already paid Eastside for Hire a joining fee of $4,600 in 2016, plus $1,500 or more to change their cabs to the company’s colors.

“They did not sit [at] the table with the drivers or anybody to consult about this,” said Singh, who said he’s been driving taxis for 17 years. “They just issued this notice to all the drivers: ‘Okay, you have until 5 o’clock on Tuesday.’”

Port spokesperson Kathy Roeder said port officials will meet with Eastside for Hire on Wednesday to try to resolve the dispute.

Teamsters officials declined to say how many of the drivers, who are independent contractors of Eastside for Hire, are union members. They estimated that about 200 drivers took part in Tuesday’s protest.

Year started with KUOW: 2009