Blacklane Team Tampa (L to R): Christian Berndt, head of affiliate management, Americas; Airport Limo Co.: Juan Rivera; Class Global Services LLC: Wolfgang De Oliveira. My chauffeurs all were dressed like industry professionals and offered impeccable service. (Blacklane photo)
After my rude UberX awakening
last December, which many readers thought foolish but in hindsight just had to happen to me so I could be fully informed, I recently ventured down the Blacklane. Two test rides prove how app technology and chauffeured service can merge, although the pricing strategies are up for debate.
Blacklane is the global chauffeured app based in Berlin that now extends to 190 cities worldwide, including Las Vegas where service started the week before the International LCT Show.
The first thing to understand about Blacklane is that it’s technically not an on-demand ride app, although close. You can’t open the app and see how many vehicles are in your vicinity as with Uber. You can’t see your car on a map as it heads toward you, although you get text messages about its pending arrival.
Blacklane is what I call the fast-reserve ride app. As long as you schedule your ride 1 to 1.5 hours in advance, you’ll get picked up. That might take some planning if you are out for the evening, such as remembering to reserve a ride midway through a leisurely dinner in a restaurant. It’s also ideal for timelines beyond 1.5 hours, especially when reserving an early morning airport pick-up right before you go to bed.
In fairness, many medium to large limousine fleet companies now have recalibrated operations to respond to ride requests ASAP based on what vehicles they can muster as quickly as possible. Some operators I’ve spoken to try very hard to never say no, even if the customer needs a ride in 30 minutes.
For my first run, I reserved Blacklane “Business Class,” the regular service level, for a 7.5 mile trip with a 1 and 1/2 hour reserve minimum. The newly hired chauffeur was a few minutes late due to L.A. area traffic, but he won me over by calling ahead and telling me. His 2015 Cadillac XTS livery sedan bore a California TCP number, and he told me he drove for a small fleet limousine company whose owner I interviewed for a later article. The chauffeur held the door, provided bottled water, and had inserted magazines into the seat pockets. The ride and amenities were indistinguishable from a high-end chauffeured experience. Total cost: $49, all in.
Two days later, I reserved a “First Class” ride to take me from an auto repair shop where I had to drop off my wife’s car — yes, that repair shop that starred in my Uber X runs — to my worklplace. I had reserved the ride at 11 p.m. the night before for a 8:15 a.m. pickup. After I had confirmed the ride via the app, I realized I had entered the wrong date. I immediately e-mailed back about my mistake and then called the Blacklane U.S. number (415) area code. A helpful agent took care of the mistake right away and I received a reconfirmation within seconds.
The next morning, the chauffeur arrived early in a BMW 7 series sedan. She held open the right rear door to a clean compartment with bottled water and magazines. Before we left, she handed me a package of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, a unique nice touch I’d never experienced in my eight years as LCT editor. Most surprising is she already had planned the fastest route to my workplace at that time of morning. I thought for sure I would have to explain to her “my rush hour shortcut,” but she already knew it and followed it. Like my previous chauffeur, she worked for a small fleet limousine company. Both chauffeurs were plugged into GPS directions. Total cost for First Class: $63, all in.
These rates obviously exceed the lowball fares of Uber X, Lyft and even Uber Black, but then, you get what you pay for. I’ve heard dissenters in the industry complain about Blacklane driving down chauffeured rates. The new reality in this tech-driven app era is, as long as you are running your service legally and safely, following all the rules, then the free market of supply, demand and marketing dictates prices and rates.
To Blacklane’s credit, they appear to follow the true independent contractor model. Available affiliated Blacklane chauffeurs “bid” on rides, with the take-home rate rising every few minutes until someone deems it profitable and accepts it via the app. That explains the second reason why Blacklane requires a one-hour minimum lead time for reservations: It’s not just about finding the right vehicle and getting it to you in time; it also allows time for chauffeurs to choose to accept the rides at locally flexible rates in real time. (Rates for clients are fixed).
Operators affiliated with Blacklane may choose when, where and how often they wish to designate excess fleet inventory or downtime to Blacklane. They are in control 24/7.
Blacklane also uses only legal, licensed, trained chauffeurs interviewed and vetted by the company. They do an extensive document review of chauffeurs and vehicles. Since its providers come from established legal limousine companies or legal independent operator chauffeurs, background checks are not as much of an issue as for Uber X and Lyft. I will be optimistic and assume a legal licensed limousine company has taken the initiative and background checked its chauffeurs, whether the state requires it or not. (If you're not doing it, I suggest you start right away in this post-Uber-killer era). Blacklane says it does its own background checks and provides training. Regardless, it’s a hell of a lot better than Uber X.
So Blacklane fills yet another valued chauffeured niche: In between a traditional chauffeured reservation based ride on the high end, and Uber Black on the low-end. If you strictly want to deal with one app for your transportation in 190 cities on relatively short notice, then Blacklane works. If you need it now, then Uber Black, SUV or Lux are still the only widely available options, although several growing upstarts in the chauffeured transportation market provide select service in some cities, i.e. iCars, MiRide, etc. They can’t expand soon enough to give Uber Black some much needed competition.
I am sticking with my vow to never use Uber X again, a catch-all e-hitchhiking service with constant criminal drama and serious safety risks. We should all work to educate the riding public on why it's better to pay $49 any day for a Blacklane ride than $11 for a dirty Corolla driven by a gigging freaklet.