Though the events of September 11 have changed our industry in many ways, gypsy operators still manage to get through the enhanced security at airports and steal business away from legitimate operators. How can you cope with these illegal hustlers, and what methods can you use to fight back? Operators say the gypsy operator problem is ?out of hand,? but some have come up with ways to monitor them and beat them at their own game. Communicate With Your Chauffeurs Have your chauffeurs watch out for the competition. ?Your chauffeurs are your best eyes,? says Jim Salinger, owner of Unique Limousine in Harrisburg, Pa. When prom season approaches, Salinger includes a letter in every chauffeur?s paycheck. ?It basically reads, ?Hey guys, unlicensed operators are stealing your paycheck.? It?s in their best interest to report this type of activity. We put the letter in bold, it catches their eye, they read it, and they watch, particularly around prom time,? he says.
Identify Your Vehicles ?All of our vehicles are identified with a front plate,? Salinger says. ?In some states you can?t do that because you have two license plates, but in Pennsylvania we only have one plate so we have our logo identification on the front of all of our vehicles.? Instruct your customers to look for the greeting sign that includes your company?s logo. ?If the sign with the customer?s name on it doesn?t also have our logo on it, our customers won?t approach the driver,? Salinger says.
Educate Your Customers Customers need to know what they?re getting when they rent from a gypsy operator. ?We put a stuffer in with the corporate billing that says ?beware,?? Salinger says. The flyer spells out the importance of using a legitimate operator who is certified and has passed safety inspections. ?If our clients stop using them, eventually these hustlers are either going to start playing by the rules or go away.?
Nick Tropiano, owner of Tropiano Transportation in Ft. Washington, Pa., agrees that educating customers is the most important aspect of beating the gypsy operator.
Tropiano says he is still amazed that passengers will get on a flight, land in a city they?re not familiar with, and have no idea of how they?re going to arrive at their destination. ?Instead of prearranging transportation with a reputable limousine company or getting into a legitimate cab, they find these people hanging around the escalators and the doors, and they go with them!? he says. And, Tropiano adds, 90 percent of the time, the ride is not less expensive.
Recently, Tropiano had a customer call about a trip to the airport. ?We quoted our rate of $75 plus 18 percent gratuity,? he says. ?He was charged $145 by one of these gypsies!? Tropiano asked the customer how often he came into the city via the airport, and suggested making arrangements ahead of time with a legitimate carrier who would have a person standing there waiting for him upon arrival. ?You know ahead of time exactly how much it is, and if someone tries to rip you off you can call the company and say, ?I was charged more than you told me,?? Tropiano says.
Work With Your Association Operators need to become more active in their associations so they can ultimately develop better working relationships with airport representatives and ground-side managers.
?We need law enforcement in the terminals,? Tropiano says. ?That takes working with the association and airport ground-side managers. Ten years ago, JFK had a bad solicitation problem. They don?t have that problem today. The Port Authority woke up and said, ?We?re going to clean this airport up.? Philadelphia hasn?t come to that realization yet. They need to say, ?This is a problem,? and put a police officer in each terminal. There should be a police officer by the baggage carousels and by ground transportation. The police know who these illegitimate guys are. If somebody really wanted to do it, they could clean it all up in a week. But you have to go out there with the power to clean it up. If you?re constantly locking the hustlers up, eventually they would get the hint.?
Alfred LaGasse, executive director of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, says that the public sector is more responsive when you explain the issue in their terms as to why they should be interested and take action. ?From a public policy perspective, I break it down into three areas: public safety, revenue and public image,? LaGasse says.
? Public safety. ?They?re illegal operators to begin with,? LaGasse says. ?They?re not going to have insurance, so the passengers are at risk. The vehicle?s not inspected for safety or general road-worthiness, and the vast majority of the time the driver is going to be unlicensed. That unlicensed driver could be a terrorist or some other criminal, and he?s driving for an illegitimate operator for a reason.?
? Revenue. The illegal operator isn?t paying the licensing fee or local taxes. ?They are losing money by allowing that person to operate,? LaGasse says. ?Many airports make a lot of money off of our industry. They make a little less money when they allow this type of operator to siphon off legitimate fares.?
? Public image. ?What does it say about a city that can?t control its own streets, allowing illegal operators to operate freely?? LaGasse asks. ?They?re putting their citizens and tourists at risk.? LaGasse points out that a portion of operators? licensing fees go toward enforcement. ?If there?s no enforcement, then someone?s paying for a service they?re not receiving, and the public is expecting service they?re not receiving,? he says. ?It leads to a general bad image for the city, whether you?re trying to recruit a convention for your city, or a company is going to relocate to your city ? they don?t want to see that you can?t control your streets.?
Develop a Relationship with the PUC ?We watch the gypsies, we write the tag number down, we write down what they have done, and we turn them into the PUC,? Salinger says. ?Unfortunately, because the gypsies don?t have a certificate, the PUC cannot do anything to them. But what they do is send them a letter stating they can?t do it, and it stops. Some people are smart enough to know that the PUC will maybe fine them, and the fine is not a big deterrent. But some of these illegal operators are advertising, and once they start advertising the PUC will step in. Because, number one, they?re not carrying the proper insurance.?
At prom season, Salinger has notified the PUC of the popularity of non-certified vehicles. ?About two years ago, the PUC sent a team out and hit five major high schools,? he says. ?Cars were here from Ohio, Maryland and New York. These were specialty cars, not six- to eight-passenger limousines. The PUC came in and fined them heavily. Now this has deterred people from coming in to Pennsylvania because they know they?re going to get hammered.?
Educate Customers on Safety Several years ago, Tropiano drove to JFK Airport almost every day, and one day a gentleman came off a flight saying he had to get to Philadelphia and he wanted a private car. Tropiano had a sedan and took the fare. ?I gave him my card and told him next time to call ahead, and we?d have someone there to meet him,? Tropiano says.
?Two weeks later, I?m in JFK and here comes the same guy. He asked if I had a fare, I said ?no,? and he asked for a ride. I told him that what he was doing was dangerous because what happens if I?m not there? He said he?d catch another ride. I explained to him, ?As long as you understand that you?re in New York, that person may not know how to get to Philadelphia, and they may rip you off.? He didn?t think it was a big deal.? A month later, Tropiano saw ... for more on this article, please see the April issue of LCT magazine.