SFO shuttle system needs fixing

The 13 shuttle-van companies serving San Francisco International Airport must be doing something right, because they carried approximately 470,000 flight passengers last year. But airport officials say they receive “unacceptably frequent” complaints from dissatisfied shuttle riders who grumble that van operators are too difficult to reach by phone, charge higher rates than were quoted and travel roundabout routes. Also, the three van pickup locations at SFO are too hard to find.

The result is the Bay Area’s busiest airport is considering a total overhaul of its door-to-door, shared-ride shuttle providers. Major changes could include a drastic cutback in the number of companies allowed to operate within SFO, leaving customers with only one or two providers to choose from.

Another revamp goal would be for all shuttles entering SFO to run on clean energy by 2012, when the current fleet would presumably reach retirement. Right now, only 24 percent of the airport’s more than 200 vans operate on clean fuel.

SFO management claims that limiting the access to a smaller number of shuttle companies would enable remaining providers to accumulate greater resources for improving the passenger experience. The airport officials also want to consolidate the three pickup locations into either one or two larger sites that would be easier for customers to find.

But the smaller van operators, who face the greatest danger of losing their permits, have hired a lawyer to argue that curtailed competition would inevitably lead to more expensive passenger fares. Shuttle riders now pay an average of $10 to $18 for reserved home pickup service covering the Bay Area, from Santa Rosa to Silicon Valley.

Shuttle drivers also fear losing their jobs if any companies are eliminated from airport access; and 41 percent of these drivers have worked the airport for at least five years. But an SFO representative insisted that laid-off drivers would likely be hired by the core of van operators that would be permitted to operate.

The Examiner is in favor of SFO shuttle passengers having their consistent complaints addressed and obtaining the best possible service, but business competition is generally good for the public. We remain unconvinced that creating a shuttle monopoly or even a semi-monopoly would somehow produce a more convenient, pleasant, reliable and affordable airport ride.

We are also doubtful that the improvements sought by SFO are so expensive that a dramatic leap of fare charges must automatically follow. The airport should carefully go step by step in its shuttle-service improvement program and ensure that it does nothing to make matters worse. And the smaller operators should explore forming a service coalition with central dispatcher and repair facilities that enable them to compete more effectively.

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