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While other drivers wait in line another taxi speeds by at San Francisco International Airport on Tuesday, Dec 7, 2010. Drivers are taking advantage of an airport policy designed to give them a break if they return to the airport within thirty minutes. (John Green/Staff)

Thousands of taxi drivers leave San Francisco International Airport each day and then race up and down Peninsula freeways at hair-raising speeds in a desperate attempt to drop off their customers and get back to the airport within 30 minutes.

If they make it, the airport waives a $4 fee and lets the taxis cut to the front of a pickup line that can take more than two hours to move through.

That they are able to reach downtown San Francisco or Santa Clara County and make it back before the clock runs out may seem unbelievable to even the fastest freeway commuters. But they do it because it pays, and many cabbies say it's the only way to make a decent living "playing" the airport.

Now, the same airport officials who unwittingly sparked the beat-the-clock competition by instituting the policy in 2002 have had enough. They are proposing to end the incentive.

"The reward is so great that it encourages drivers to speed, drive recklessly and, in some cases, cheat the system," said airport deputy director Tryg McCoy.

But any changes would likely come with a cost: higher fares for passengers.

Originally, the plan was intended to compensate drivers who wait hours in the pickup line, only to get a measly $10 fare to a nearby city such as San Bruno or Millbrae. Under those conditions, a driver would be lucky to break even on the trip after paying the airport's $4 trip fee and splitting the profits with his company.


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And it has worked on some levels, attracting more cabs to the airport. About 3,000 of San Francisco's 5,000 taxi drivers now regularly spend time in an airport arrivals pickup line, providing plenty of transportation for travelers. The drivers are there in hopes of swooping up passengers with long trips that lead to huge fares not possible within San Francisco proper.

So many taxi drivers showed up to an Airport Commission meeting at San Francisco City Hall on Tuesday that officials tabled a proposal to end the program. The plan would have likely led to higher fares, including a $17 minimum fare to help protect drivers from losing money on short trips; currently there is no minimum. But airport officials said there will eventually be changes.

"It is a problem. We need to solve it one way or another," said commission President Larry Mazzola.

McCoy said airport officials will try to find a better answer. They had spent the past nine months meeting with drivers a dozen times and holding 30 hours of discussion before asking to end the program.

"My goal is to tip the scales back to even" between safety and the drivers' right to make a living, McCoy said. "It's the right thing to do for the customers."

The taxi drivers took issue with the criticism of their driving, saying they are safe drivers, especially considering how many miles they log.

"It is a concern, it's an issue, but it's not as urgent as they seem to portray it," said Mark Gruberg, a cabbie since 1983 and member of the United Taxicab Workers.

The cabdrivers have proposed either a program with distance-based incentives, like the one they say works in New York City, or higher minimum fares of at least $20 to $25.

"I don't think eliminating the 'short' will eliminate the concern" of unsafe driving, said Barry Taranto, a retired SFO cabbie who is now a taxi driver advocate. "I think maybe drivers will be even more desperate" to drive faster.

Mike Rosenberg covers San Mateo, Burlingame, Belmont and transportation. Contact him at 650-348-4324.

incentive program If taxi drivers deliver customers and return to airport within 30 minutes, they can cut to front of pickup line and avoid a fee -- a system officials are now proposing to end.