U.S. Capitol Airport Namesake Rolls in Grave

Across all of my travels I have never encountered such an imbalance in supply and demand for airport taxis as at Reagan National last night. This is a bit shameful for an airport in the capitol of the world’s largest economy, the leader of the free world. Standing in queue is practically part of the job description of the business traveler, so this would have gone unnoticed except for the airport employee handing out informational flyers to all of us.

 

 

It was a map of common destinations in and around Washington D.C. and the decidedly approximate taxi fares required to those points. We were handed this helpful map, as if to say “Here, pass the time in queue studying this map and budgeting for your trip.” But there was more.

The back side of the flyer detailed the rules for approximate fares based on distance, additional baggage, etc. Below that was a list of 12 conditions that must be met by our taxi drivers. These included restrictions on the driver’s footwear, guidelines for the use of air conditioning, prohibitions on discourtesy by the drivers, and yet again a notice on how fares are set. Wow. Really? I just want to pay someone to drive me to my hotel, not to study a piece of transportation legislation.
This sign was placed at not at one but at two points along the taxi queue. It all but warns the customer that the taxi riding experience will be anything but pleasant and smooth, indirectly apologizing and offering an avenue for grievance. It’s quite a way to say “Welcome to America” for a visitor just setting foot in the USA and wanting to take a taxi to see the city’s sights.

My taxi driver was quiet and efficient. I overlooked his “no credit cards” sign and lack of a collar on his shirt. In the catalog of rules broken by taxi drivers, these are tame. Frankly, in most other developed parts of the world my $15 ride to a downtown hotel would have raised howls of protest from airport cab drivers who want their fares to be $50+ to make it worth their time. Yet no complaints. Perhaps the tendency towards short distances and low fares from Reagan create the limited supply of taxis?

Credit goes to the airport management for taking action, presumably to address customer service issues related to taxi fares, and setting standards for driver attire and behavior. But what messages do these measures send about the management of Reagan National Airport and their approach to problem solving? The additional policies, checks, reports and rework mechanisms put in place hardly address the root causes. In fact, they may exacerbate the problem by creating a blame culture, giving customers a sense that the taxi drivers are nefarious, and even demotivating drivers, who then decline to supply their services to Reagan National.

President Ronald Reagan championed supply side economics. This macroeconomic theory hypothesizes that growth is created by reducing tax and regulatory barriers to supplying goods and services. Whether or not the supply side model of economics works any better or worse than other models has hardly been scientifically proven. A problem with many well-intentioned Big Ideas and government programs is that they are undertaken without putting forth a hypothesis to be disproved through the scientific method. This is because the politician who treats such articles of faith championed by their party as hypotheses to be rigorously tested through scientific skepticism is in effect committing career suicide.
Listen carefully while standing in the taxi queue at Reagan National. You may hear a faint underground rolling sound from the distant west.

7 Comments

  1. Jason Brown

    October 4, 2011 - 5:27 am

    Jon, I find work travel to be very tiring and I’m sorry that you had to wait in the long crappy line. In my experience, every time I had business in DC, National Airport was my favorite terminal, because I could quickly walk off the plane and onto the Metro to get where I needed in DC proper.
    As one possible mitigation, couldn’t management help the travelers figure out which Metro stop was closest to their destination and take a taxi from there?

  2. Robert Banghart

    October 4, 2011 - 6:10 am

    Is there any evidence that the steps taken where not done so without someone putting forth a hypothesis and testing it through the scientific method?
    Has anyone tested your hypothesis that such rules, etc. at Reagan National Airport may exacerbate the problem?

  3. Jon

    October 4, 2011 - 9:09 am

    Obviously not, Robert. My comments are merely conjecture and speculation at this point, not a hypotheses.
    Perhaps these measures at Reagan were the result of well-tested and effective experiments, which in some ways would be even sadder if true.

  4. Eric

    October 4, 2011 - 9:14 am

    I like both sets of comments from Jason and Robert.
    The hypothesis that excessive regulation is part of the supply problem seems incomplete. I like that there are some basic hygiene and service level agreements in place, otherwise a cab ride would be a lottery. I’d say the rules in place are more like standard work than burdensome regulation.
    Given the queue I’d say the population of cabs isn’t staffed to peak, which is probably the right economic decision overall. There are alternatives -public transit, the Metro can be efficient for within DC travel or private hire. Private hire allows the market to charge what it can to allow the rider to avoid a queue.
    DCA could probably do more to make people aware of alternatives. And as a consumer we (because I’ve been right where Jon was at some point, somewhere) could do more to know what options there are an make the best decision possible for the situation.

  5. Andy Wagner

    October 4, 2011 - 9:23 am

    My wife can probably recite from memory my complaints about the taxi line at Logan airport, but I’ve found this seems to be a standard practice.
    At Logan, for example, there is a nearby lot where taxis wait to be called to the terminal. They must be given a security check there, because they drive from the lot to the terminal with their trunks open.
    Unfortunately, instead of having a simple trigger to call taxis to the terminal one at a time as each taxi leaves. The airport batches them! All ten taxis have to leave the lane at the terminal before the next batch of 10 is dispatched! (This makes me particularly livid during the holiday season when the kids and I finally get home from grandma’s house!)
    I think a minimum application of technology could get you a system where each leaving taxi automatically triggers a call for one taxi from the off-site lot.
    I can’t tell you how frustrating it is to wait in that line then see ten cabs roll in at once and have an airport employee supervise them to ensure that they are loaded one at a time!

  6. Robert Banghart

    October 4, 2011 - 10:59 am

    I happen to have worked for Reagan (the man, not the airport). I often found that conjecture and speculation lead many people to oversimplify problems and make rash judgments. As H.L. Mencken said, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
    I also continue to find that a lot of people base their lives on the myths they hear and even create about Reagan to support their own biases rather than what the man himself did.
    I once had to evaluate a 400 page report on stack gas emissions from coal burning Ohio electric plants as a tiny piece of work done to help him decide his policy on the control of auto emissions. The control of auto emissions was and continues to be a complex problem. I assure you that the decisions he made on regulatory matters were not the result of conjecture and/or speculation.

  7. Jon

    October 4, 2011 - 11:51 am

    FYI the queue was at about 1130PM on a Sunday night. I don’t know if that is a peak hour or a low supply hour for taxi drivers.