It’s yet to be determined how well the newly designated pickup zones at SFO will fare for taxi drivers. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Playing the airport taxi game

I’ve never been much of an airport player. I prefer to work The City.

I’ve never been much of an airport player. I prefer to work The City.

Even before the new system limiting which medallions can operate at SFO, I lacked the patience required to wait three hours in the holding lots, hoping for a decent ride once finally reaching the terminals.

Even though the prospect of a long haul can be tantalizing, you’re just as likely to end up with a Burlingame. And while a short allows you get to cut to the front of the line on returning, if the airport isn’t moving, it’s a small consolation.

Plus, I get restless easily. Back when I used to try my luck at the ‘port, I’d go stir crazy idling in the wiggle and donut lots, while drivers stood around discussing their ride prospects like oddsmakers at an OTB.

Last Thursday night, though, after the theater crowd dissipates and my only shot at a fare is a random flag or a radio order while circling through SoMa, the TL and the Mission, I see an unusual post on Hackers: “Cabs needed at SFO!”

Not only is the American Diabetes Association convention about to start, with 22,000 prospective attendees, it’s the first day of the new SFO policy requiring Uber/Lyft drivers to pick up fares in the fifth level of the parking garage. I’m curious whether this change will compel travelers to avoid the inevitable confusion and take taxis instead.

I jump on the freeway, race down the peninsula and exit behind a Vina cab. On the ramp, two other cabs join us and we head towards the taxi entrance as a squad past a gridlocked column of Uber/Lyft cars trying to access the newly designated pickup zone. The lead taxi driver honks his horn at the trapped vehicles, either as a warning or just to make fun of them.

After tagging in at the gate, we speed down the chute. The P medallions swing left into the wiggle. I follow the other Ks into the old entry lot. There’s no line, so we’re directed straight to the paid lot.

I have to stop first and load money onto my a-card. It’s painful watching all the cabs bypass me as I try desperately to push a wrinkled sawbuck into the slot, until taking a deep breath and straightening the bill.

In the paid lot, there’s a slight pause as the starter sends cabs to specific terminals.

When it’s my turn, I head to United. Pull up to a line of people with suitcases. Pop the trunk and load a couple’s luggage.

They’re going to San Carlos. Normally, one of the more annoying fares to get because it’s only a few miles past the cut off for a short, but tonight, since the airport is drive through, it doesn’t matter.

As we pass SFO, traffic from the south into the airport is at a standstill, extending all the way to Millbrae Avenue.

To avoid the mess on my return, I take the San Bruno Avenue exit and circle back.

This time, there’s a line of Ks waiting to access the donut. Still, it doesn’t take long before horns start blaring and drivers are shouting, “Go! Go! Go!”

At Terminal One, I get a fare to the Harbor Court Hotel. On the freeway I consider asking the woman in back if she took a cab because of the delay in getting an Uber or Lyft, but she’s not very chatty. Outside the hotel, though, as she types her email address into the Square app for a digital receipt, she tells me New York taxis aren’t as technologically advanced.

“So you usually take cabs back home?” I ask.

“Yeah, I’m not much of an app person.”

“They’re good for some things,” I say, clicking send.

Since not enough flights are coming in to justify another foray to SFO, I meander back to the Yellow yard, $100 richer than 90 minutes ago.

Cashing out, I discuss how the new SFO policy will play out with the window guy.

“Whenever they throw us a bone,” he says wearily, no doubt having heard similar reports from numerous drivers, “it’s just a matter of time before they give us the whip.”

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


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