This just isn’t a good time for air travel. Besides the usual slow down in business during winter, the coronavirus outbreak can’t be very encouraging for air travelers. (Courtesy photo)

I Drive SF: Death by Airport

As much as I try to resist the urge, playing the airport is addictive.

Lately I’ve been trying to avoid the airport. Now that we’re even deeper into the thick of winter, taxi business is absolutely dismal. At SFO, the wait times are longer than ever.

There was a momentary respite from the bleakness two weeks ago when the JP Morgan conference rolled into town, but since then, driving a taxi has been mostly an exercise in futility.

I start my shifts before the sun comes up, canvassing the hotels downtown for any signs of life. Without tourists or suits, though, demand is minimal. You take anything you can get, while fighting the urge to deadhead to the airport.

At least you know there’ll be something decent at the end of the queue. If you’re lucky, that is, and don’t get stuck waiting several hours to reach a terminal.

That’s what happened to me last Tuesday night…

After dropping at the W, I check the TaxiQ app that provides information about what’s going on at the airport, including how many cabs are in the holding lots and how many flights are arriving each hour. Since the numbers look good, I jump on 101 and head south.

Three and one half hours later, I finally pull up to terminal two, frantically hoping for a decent fare. Fifteen minutes later, the starter directs someone with luggage towards my cab.

“Where you heading?” I ask the guy.

“The Marriott in Burlingame.”

Crap. A $14 short.

Fortunately, with short rides, you can go to the front of the line upon returning to the airport. But when I get back, there are seven shorts ahead of me. And only a few more flights coming in.

It takes 30 minutes to reach terminal three. This time, though, I get a ride within seconds, but after stashing the woman’s suitcases in my trunk, I’m dismayed to find out her destination.

“San Mateo, please,” she says. “Poplar Ave.”

Another short.

Disappointed, I can hardly talk during the ride. I drop her off and race back to the holding lots.

There’s only one flight left. And the short line is five cabs deep.

After 20 minutes and no movement, I give up and drive home. Dejected and angry.

This is what’s referred to, in Hacker parlance, as “death by airport.”

Even though I swear up and down to stay away from the airport unless it’s moving, the next day I’m talking to Matt in the smoking section at SFO, telling him about my misfortune the previous night.

“Sounds like a typical Tuesday in January,” he says. “Happens to the best of us.”

There’s some consolation in knowing I’m not the only one who’s experienced the horror of getting stuck in a “shortex,” but not much.

This just isn’t a good time for air travel. Besides the usual slow down in business during winter, the coronavirus outbreak can’t be very encouraging for air travelers. In fact, it was recently reported that flights from China are down almost 50 percent.

Then there’s the tragic Kobe Bryant accident that occurred while flying in heavy fog.

For two days last week, the fog was so thick around the Bay SFO saw major delays. One guy I picked up told me his plane was approaching the runway in the dense fog, but seconds before touching down, the pilot pulled up and they circled for another 90 minutes until making another attempt.

“All I could think about was what happened to Kobe,” he said. “I’m sure that was going through everyone else’s minds too.”

As much as I try to resist the urge, playing the airport is addictive. It’s like gambling. You never know what you’re going to get. You could end up with a San Jose. Or a Santa Rosa. Or two Santa Rosas in a row. Or a Millbrae, of course.

It’s that uncertainty, and potential to hit pay dirt, that keeps drivers hooked on “the ’port.”

While any reasonable driver would only play the airport after getting a ride there, when all the hotels are stacked, traffic is a nightmare and there’s not a flag in sight, it’s easy to want to roll the dice. Even if there’s always the possibility of coming up snake eyes.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine “Behind the Wheel” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to him at or visit His column appears every other week in the Thursday Examiner. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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