Your Private Driver: The LAX Dilemma

This column provides tips, insights, and observations on TNCs like Uber and Lyft from a driver that’s worked with them for several years.

Los Angeles International Airport presents some relatively unique complications for TNC drivers and passengers that combine to make the experience of getting a ride there abnormally frustrating. Among those issues are heavy traffic congestion, an unusually central location on the west side of the city, and a cramped area which is really too small to serve the country’s second-busiest airport. Yes, I know that a convenient location may not seem like much of an issue, but I’ll get to that part in just a moment.

Even by Los Angeles standards, the traffic jams heading into the LAX terminal area are legendary. A large number of Uber and Lyft vehicles are at least partially responsible for the congestion as they battle with private cars, taxis, and shuttle buses for limited road space. Even worse, airport regulations require all TNC passengers and vehicles to cram onto the upper departures level for both pickups and drop-offs. This frequently leads to the upper level being jammed while the lower level is flowing freely. It has also led to some tense moments when hurried passengers ask you to risk a thousand-dollar fine to violate airport regulations and drive on the lower level so they don’t miss their flight.

Average congestion from the Lyft and Uber holding lot to LAX Terminal 2. During busy times it can get significantly worse.

LAX is also conveniently located in West L.A., right at the southern edge of the Silicon Beach area. This is actually a benefit for most travelers, since most are never far from where they need to go. Uber and Lyft drivers, however, will frequently go to great lengths to avoid getting stuck with a short trip. The entire process of picking up a passenger at the terminals and taking them to Venice, as an example, can easily suck up an hour or more of a driver’s day while only netting a payout of roughly six dollars. In addition to Silicon Beach, common destinations also include temporary employee housing in El Segundo, the Century Blvd. hotels across the street, and the In-n-Out restaurant located almost literally around the corner from the Southwest Airlines terminal.

A sample trip from LAX Terminal 2 to Snapchat’s Venice Beach offices. Note also the locations of YouTube Space and In-n-Out. Not shown are the dozens of other tech company offices in this area.

The end result is an unusually adversarial relationship between drivers and passengers, or even drivers and other drivers. Screening rides based on destination is not an allowed practice by Uber or Lyft, yet it’s common at LAX. If you’re not going to a profitable destination, you may be waiting even longer than the already absurd 15-minute average to be picked up. The issue came to a head last month with a story about a pilot who got dumped in a parking lot by a Lyft driver who said that the fare wasn’t worth his time.

Uber has been trying to address the issue in a few ways. First, they (and Lyft) have implemented a “rematch” system that allows drivers who are dropping off someone else to instantly snag another outgoing passenger without needing to head out to wait in the queue lot. This significantly reduces wait time for riders during non-peak hours, and drivers are less likely to care much about the destination since they’re not spending fifteen unpaid minutes just trying to get out of the airport.

Two other changes they’ve made to try and take the sting out of short trips are instituting a minimum fare of $10 as well as holding your position at the front of the queue line if you get a short trip. While there hasn’t been an exact definition of what qualifies as a “short trip”, it appears to be anything ending within a two-mile radius of the airport. The drivers I’ve spoken to seem lukewarm about the changes so far; most of them would actually prefer a minimum fare of $20 on all trips going to or from LAX as they feel it would sufficiently compensate them for all the time they spend sitting in traffic going to or from the terminals.

Arguably, the short trips would be less of an issue if the airport’s congestion didn’t take so much time to navigate. Unfortunately, any real fix to LAX’s traffic woes isn’t likely to come for several years. An automated people mover connecting the terminals to under-construction rental car and transit hubs isn’t scheduled to be finished until 2023. In the meantime, there are other options for getting in and out of LAX that are less stressful.

My personal favorite is Execucar, which offers a black-car service for fixed rates that are comparable with what an UberX would cost. These cars also have the airport permits that allow them to pick up and drop off on the less-congested lower arrivals level. I’ve used them twice so far and enjoyed the experience both times. Another cheaper alternative are the Flyaway buses, which for a one-way fare of $9.75 can take you to Hollywood, Long Beach, or Union Station, among other destinations.

I really do like the idea of Uber as a service, but the current situation at LAX means no one–drivers, riders, or even airport authorities–are getting the experience they want. Until this is rectified though some combination of traffic planning and proper incentives, I can’t really recommend it be used by anyone to get to or from this airport.

Sekani Wright is an experienced TNC driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or at @djsekani on Twitter. Have a safe trip!

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