UberX thwarted in bid to serve O’Hare and Midway airports

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An organization that’s trying to unionize Chicago cabdrivers claimed credit Tuesday for blocking ride-sharing companies from moving in on their turf at O’Hare and Midway airports — with an assist from City Hall.

The latest high-stakes confrontation between ride-sharing companies still operating in a regulatory vacuum and the highly-regulated taxicab industry began last Friday.

That’s when UberX sent a text and e-mail to the ride-sharing company’s drivers informing them of what appeared to be a change in city policy.

“IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT: UberX partners will be able to pick up at O’Hare and Midway airports. . . . We hope that our UberX partners take advantage of this and we hope to see your number of requests increase!” the alert stated.

“All Uber riders must be picked up at Arrivals in the Friends & Family Pick up lane [farthest to the left.] Partners SHOULD NOT ask riders to come to departures, parking garages or any other location. The best place to wait for a request at the airport is in the cell phone lot. Park there, be online and, once you get the request, give your rider a call and head to the terminal.”

The United Taxidrivers Community Council, which is behind an effort to unionize Chicago cabdrivers, got wind of the memo, sounded the alarm with the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection and threatened to hold a news conference at O’Hare. 

“Taxis and limos have to buy airport departure stamps to pick up at the airport. It’s a $4 tax that goes to support the convention business. If this was allowed to happen, the state would be cheated out of their funds and it would impact four separate industries: Chicago taxis, suburban taxi, limousines and Airport Express vans,” Peter Enger, an official with the taxi drivers council, said Tuesday.

“Uber drivers were ecstatic on Friday night. They used the term `authorized.’ They made it sound like there was some kind of official policy change by the city. . . . The next thing we knew, Business Affairs reached out to Uber and told them in no uncertain terms that they could not pick up at airports.”

Mika Stambaugh, a spokesperson for the Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, acknowledged that the city stepped in to referee the dispute — by ordering UberX to stop picking up passengers at O’Hare and Midway.

“The city has not authorized any ride-sharing company to offer pick-ups at either airport. Any company offering that service is subject to enforcement, which includes tickets and vehicle impoundment. The city intends to strictly enforce this policy,” Stambaugh wrote in an e-mail to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Uber spokesperson Lauren Altmin did not explain why the company initially authorized its drivers to pick up airport passengers.

In an e-mailed statement, she would only say, “At the request of the city, uberX partners are not currently picking up at either airport, despite both O’Hare and Midway desperately needing additional transportation options. We look forward to continuing our work with the city of Chicago to provide consumers with competitive, affordable and superior transportation choices.”

Last week, a parliamentary maneuver by three aldermen forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to wait to fill the regulatory vacuum that, cabdrivers contend, has allowed ride-sharing companies to siphon business from taxicabs, driving down medallion values and depressing cabbie income.

The proposed regulations would create two tiers of ride-sharing licenses tied to hours driven and “reserve the right” to cap surge-pricing.

RELATED: Rahm’s brother’s stake in ride-share firm raises uber questions

Ride-sharing companies would be required to service “all parts” of Chicago — not cherry-pick the downtown area and the city’s most lucrative neighborhoods.

They would be prohibited from picking up street hails or riders at McCormick Place, O’Hare and Midway airports “unless the commissioner determines, in duly promulgated rules, following consultation with the commissioner of aviation, that such pick ups can be accomplished in a manner that preserves security, public safety and the orderly flow of traffic; and . . . designated taxicab stands or loading zones.”

Street hails would be off-limits.

On Tuesday, Enger praised the Emanuel administration for taking swift regulatory action against a company whose investors include the mayor’s brother, Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel.

“Uber has been forced to back down in other cities, but this is the first time it’s happened in Chicago,” Enger said.

“We’re pleased the city did something this time. We’re hopeful this starts a trend toward addressing our union’s concerns. We’ve put together a comprehensive plan — not only for a fare increase, but for adjustments to rules that could put a little more money in cabbies’ pockets. Ideally, we’d like to be able to sit down with the commissioner and discuss all kinds of different reforms the taxi industry needs.”

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