The Corner

The Washington Flyer Flim-Flam?

While stuck at Dulles Airport recently, waiting more than 20 minutes in a long line for cabs, I was reminded of an issue that would seem able to unify Washingtonians across the political spectrum: the contractual monopoly on taxi service from Dulles that Washington Flyer enjoys and that others suffer from. 

Here’s the basic situation, as I understand it: Pursuant to an agreement with the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Washington Flyer taxis have the exclusive right to pick up curbside passengers from Dulles at the taxi stand.* What that means is that all the other taxis that transport passengers to Dulles leave Dulles empty. And, conversely, the overwhelming majority of Washington Flyer taxis are empty when they make the long return trip to Dulles. According to one recent calculation:

Assuming a 25-mile, 1-way trip on average, taxis to and from Dulles drive more than 100,000 miles per day empty. Per day! 38,000,000 miles per year. At 20 mpg and $2.25 per gallon, that’s 2,000,000 wasted gallons of gasoline, costing taxi drivers more than $4 million per year for gas when no passenger is in their cab.

Plus, the inability of other taxis already at Dulles to pick up passengers means longer lines for those passengers. (Perhaps there is a theoretical argument that the contractual monopoly leads to better service overall in the long run, but I’d be highly skeptical of it.) And it’s highly doubtful that the Washington Flyer taxi drivers themselves benefit from the monopoly: Their complaints over the years about Washington Flyer certainly suggest that the business operators are able to extract the benefits for themselves.

In short, consumer, environmental, and labor concerns would all seem to cut strongly against the contractual monopoly that the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has conferred on Washington Flyer. What, then, explains the arrangement? Perhaps MWAA is happy to sacrifice the interests of airport customers to the financial gains that MWAA as an entity extracts from the arrangement. Perhaps there are payoffs, legal or otherwise, to key decisionmakers at MWAA. Perhaps there is some other explanation, but I doubt very much that it would justify the arrangement. 

* As I understand it, passengers remain free to resort to the cumbersome alternative of separately arranging in advance for pick-up by other taxis somewhere else at the airport.