To hail in vain

Whether the flutter of a butterfly’s wings on one side of the planet can affect weather patterns on the other may still be debatable.

But that a thunderstorm in Dallas can wreak havoc upon ground transportation service at the Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport was thoroughly demonstrated March 30.

On that day, Delta Flight 727 from Dallas to Baton Rouge was delayed for more than four hours in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport because of a severe weather system. The flight, scheduled to arrive in Baton Rouge at 9:09 p.m. that Monday, did not arrive until after 3 a.m. the following day.

And for about a fifth of the approximately 80 passengers aboard the flight, the nightmare didn’t end after the aircraft finally touched down in the Capital City.

After collecting their belongings in baggage claim, the 15 to 20 passengers seeking public transportation from the airport to their homes, hotel–and in one case, nearby Southern University–found themselves stuck at the curb.

Only two taxicabs were operating when Flight 727 arrived. The airplane’s crew quickly jumped in the first one. A lone passenger took the second.

This incident helped shed light on a problem in Baton Rouge.

Since the city offers no bus service to and from its metropolitan airport, passengers arriving in town are given few alternatives to taxi service. And the alternatives get even fewer after the last scheduled nights arrive around 11 p.m. and car rental counters close.

Keith Wyckoff, owner of Yellow Cab in Baton Rouge, said he does not send drivers to wait for passengers at the airport because of the mandatory “holding pen” system there.

That system forces taxis to wait in line to pick up passengers, and Wyckoff said he has found he can get more business by booking clients by phone and bypassing that line.

“We do not meet every flight unless we know we have a client coming in,” he said.

Baton Rouge has significantly fewer cabs per capita and charges higher fares than other cities of comparable size, according to figures provided by the International Taxicab and Livery Association.

Based in Kensington, Md., the ITLA is a nonprofit corporation that promotes excellence in the ground transportation industry.

With a metropolitan population of about 300,000, Baton Rouge has 50 taxicabs, or about one for every 6,000 people, the ITLA reported.

Wichita, Kansas, also with a population listed at 300,000, has 100 licensed taxis, or about one for every 3,000 people.

Little Rock, Ark., has 120 cabs in a population of 350,000, or one cab per 2,917 people.

And closer to home, New Orleans licenses about 1,600 taxicabs in a population of 557,000, or one cab for every 346 people.

Baton Rouge taxis also charge more than other cities the same size.

Most cab fares include a flat drop-off fee to cover the driver’s gas and insurance costs, plus a set per-distance rate.

When drop-off charges are added to the rate for a 1-mile trip, Baton Rouge cabs charge $3.35.

Wichita cabs charge $2.75 for the same distance trip, while Little Rock taxis charge $2.10.

Meanwhile, cabs in New Orleans charge $3.30 for the same trip.

Wyckoff said Baton Rouge rates are competitive, considering the high cost of auto insurance in Louisiana.

He said Baton Rouge cabs haven’t raised rates since 1983 and have no plans to do so.

Fred Scudgins, general manager for Delta Airlines in Baton Rouge, said ground transportation only becomes a problem when flights come in late. And that scenario is uncommon, he said.

When flights do arrive late, there is very little the airline can do about getting its passengers from the airport to their final destination.

“Our contract with the customer is to get from point A to point B,” said Scudgins, explaining that the two points are airport to airport. “(Ground transportation) never really becomes a problem for us as an airline.”

Nor does airport management consider the lack of ground transportation to be its problem.

“There’s no way we can require a cab to stay at the airport for a diverted flight,” said Anthony Marino, director of Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport. “It’s not economically feasible for them.”

In addition, Marino said, economics prevent the city from providing bus service to the airport. By his estimation, about 1 million airline passengers pass through the Baton Rouge airport each year. But it is airport employees, rather than passengers, who actually drive the demand for mass transit, he said.

And the 1,200 airport employees don’t need mass transit badly enough to justify bus service there.

“What you have to realize is that to have mass transit in a city, you need to have a tremendous amount of people using it,” Marino said. “I can’t think of very many airports that would have enough volume to warrant (public bus service).”

In addition, people in Baton Rouge have been forced to get by without public transportation for so long, that demand for it is less than in other cities where residents have learned to depend on it, Marino said.

Deborah Moore, general manager of the Capital Transportation Corp., which runs city buses. said studies conducted for the CTC several years ago showed few passengers would ride the buses if service were offered at the airport. But she could not cite any recent studies showing the same low interest.

Wyckoff said the situation at the airport could improve in the next several months, however, when he adds seven cabs to his current fleet of 25. He plans to devote some of his drivers exclusively to airport service.

Rick Smith, president of the Greater Baton Rouge Hotel and Motel Association, said the poor transportation system is punishing the local hospitality industry.

“There is most definitely an ongoing (transportation) problem, sometimes to the point that it gets embarrassing for the city,” Smith said. “We have very few taxis in this city–and after hours, forget it.”

The problem was best illustrated in 1993 when more than 10,600 people arrived in Baton Rouge for the Senior Olympic Games.

The lack of transportation reduced many seniors to tears at that time, Smith said. And while area hotels rented vans to shuttle guests from the airport, many athletes were staying in dormitories at the city’s two universities.

In addition, shuttles are allowed to carry passengers only to and from the airport, Smith said. Getting from a hotel to the mall or a restaurant is another matter altogether.

For his part, Scudgins said Baton Rouge may not have too few taxicabs so much as a scheduling problem.

“I don’t think it’s a shortage of cabs per se. It’s the cab drivers don’t want to be here in the middle of the night,” he said.

Actually, city law requires all taxicab owners to make their service available 24 hours per day, said Paul Dufour, chairman of the Taxicab Control Board, which regulates vehicles for hire in Baton Rouge.

In addition, no driver may refuse service to anyone based upon trip length, amount of fare or destination.

Enforcement of the city’s taxi laws, however, has never been a high priority.

The control board is made up of five city officials or their designees: the council administrator, chief of police, sheriff, director of finance and director of public works.

Dufour, who’s been on the board since 1981, said that without exception, each of those officials has opted to appoint a designee.

In addition, the board only meets when someone applies for a license or brings a complaint against an existing license holder.

The last meeting was in October.

Leon Maisel, president of the Baton Rouge Convention and Visitors Bureau, said poor transportation is hurting the city’s ability to attract visitors from out of town, especially for conventions.

Maisel said the three most important factors for groups shopping for cities in which to host their convention are facilities, hotels and transportation.

“I think that public transportation needs to be looked at very closely with a great deal of scrutiny. (Poor transportation) says a lot about the city, and it puts us in a different tier.”

Copyright Baton Rouge Business Report Apr 14, 1998

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