The Checkout

No Hails for Airport Cab Service

And here I thought the Canadian Rockies had a lot of rain! For the 10 days I hiked around Banff and Jasper, there were showers everyday. Blue skies one minute, an ice squall the next. But that was nothing compared to the deluge that greeted me Sunday night (or rather in the wee hours of Monday morning thanks to all the air-traffic weather delays) at D.C's Ronald Reagan National Airport.

And once again, the complete chaos there proves that Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority has a long way to go in serving its customers. Hundreds of travelers waited for nonexistent cabs in a line that double looped from one end of the new terminal to the other. It was a complete free-for-all; the only people who got cabs were those who bucked the system, dropped out of the authorized cab-waiting line and hailed cabs from the outside pick-up lane. They were fighting one another for the taxis. The airport police were no help, either. One parked a police car conspicuously at the beginning of the pick-up lane, thus deterring many drive-by cabbies from picking up desperate passengers. He stayed in the car and never bothered to stop any cabbie, so I'm not quite sure why he was there.

Taxi service from Reagan National and Dulles has always prompted lots of complaints from friends and readers; unfortunately I got to personally experience it Monday morning. As any traveler knows, the weather is beyond our control. Sometimes, companies and organizations deal with it well; sometimes they don't. (The same goes for people.) I got a taste of both sides on Sunday night. Delta handled the weather--and its customers--well; I wish I could say the same for the airport authority.

My flight from Calgary connected in Atlanta; despite weather delays in Altanta, my flight arrived on time. But my 8:30 p.m. flight home was delayed--at first until 10:10, then 10:30. I decided to try my luck going standby on the 9:30 flight that was supposed to leave at 9:45. The gate attendants were all helpful and efficient, despite the massive delays. Helping them was a handy electronic screen posted above the gate that let passengers know exactly where they stood in the standby queue and how many seats remained open. It was constantly updated (sometimes for the worse, as my name at one point dropped from number 7 to 27 when a group of passengers from another cancelled flight were abruptly registered on the list). But it certainly cut down on the suspense and had to help the agent since no one had to pester her about his/her status. So congrats to Delta (and any other airline that has instituted this process).

Making it on standby turned out not to shorten my trip once air-traffic control held all flights into Reagan National until the showers were over, around 11:30 p.m. That pushed my arrival time into D.C. to 1:30 a.m. Of course there were no cabs, and it was raining so hard some of the roads in and out of the airport were closed.

When I first joined the taxi line at 1:30, I was on the inside of the double-loop. Facing me on the outside loop was a man in an orange T-shirt who had joined the line at 12:30; he had only moved up about 20 feet in that hour and had at least 200 more feet to go before he got to the head of the line. Eventually, the taxi dispatchers realized there were available cabs coming through the unauthorized lane, the outside one used by local residents to pick up travelers. They started hailing them, but only for those passengers brave enough to leave the authorized line and get wet. And the dispatchers stopped these taxis in the middle of the road, tying up traffic behind them. Meanwhile, the passengers who remained in the authorized line never got a cab. It was a horrible mess. And I suspect Dulles was probably even worse since that airport seems to always have a cab shortage.

I gave up, called home and woke my husband, who gladly came to my rescue. Thank you, Gary!!! As we left the airport at 2:30, I spotted the man in the orange T-shirt; he had moved another 20 feet; only 180 more to go. I hope he's made it home by now.

By  |  June 27, 2006; 9:24 AM ET Customer Service
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I hope you enjoyed Jasper. I was there a few years ago during the summer. The best vacation I've ever had.

Posted by: Kevin | June 27, 2006 10:49 AM

I was on that cab line as well, and witnessed the debacle over a three hour period (I had no choice but to wait). It got progressively worse as the night went on. Another Metro Washington Airport Authority police officer pulled up his cruiser to the top of the line at around 2 am. I thought at first he was going to try to maintain order, but he just started walking into the terminal after surveying the scene. I stopped him and asked if he could help us out, yet he just shrugged off our questions after noting that "all the roads were closed."

What a complete waste of our tax dollars. He must have been tired after handing out speeding tickets and eating donuts all day. They could have used various shuttle buses to get people out on the roads that were accessible, at least to the major hubs (Crystal City, Rosslyn, Downtown DC)--the hotel shuttle buses seemed to have no trouble. It's really disheartening to see that our region has absolutely no plan in place for disaster management.

It was honestly like something out of a bad disaster movie. People were jumping out of the cab line over to the outer pickup lane and literally jumping in front of moving cabs with fistfuls of cash. To their credit, most of the cab drivers were doing their best to collect as many passengers as once for similar destinations. It just happened that most cabbies were headed into the District or out to the outlying suburbs, not to points in Arlington.

Finally, there seemed to be two separate cab lines, which added to the confusion.

Posted by: D.A., Arlington | June 27, 2006 11:00 AM

This is "situation normal" at National. Dulles is generally pretty efficient by comparison, but at National, there's always confusion, an obscure system of assigning people cabs, forced sharing regardless of destination, and complete surliness from dispatchers. I always make sure my cell phone is charged so I can call a cab -- and have it pick up at the departures so I don't have to fight for it all over again. The system is totally broken at National, so make your own or bring a pillow!

Posted by: Anonymous | June 27, 2006 11:33 AM

I'm not sure if it's a failure of the airport or the cab companies either not having enough cars or misallocating their resources. A driver once told me that his company does monitor the airport to see when the last plane has arrived so they must pay some attention.

But if the problem is not enough cabs, I just don't get it. Seems like the line is always long enough that investing in another car/driver would easily pay for itself in less than a year if all it did were DCA runs. Must be a reason why not, maybe a useful conversation to have the next time I catch an arlington cab.

Posted by: yarr | June 27, 2006 11:49 AM

I had the same issues Sunday night/Monday morning at Dulles. Thank God my husband could come get me! There were probably about 500+ people in line, and when I went outside I noticed several of the few cabs that did come through left empty. What a mess.

Posted by: sixy | June 27, 2006 11:52 AM

Why would anyone take a cab from National?? Take Metro to whatever station is nearest your destination, then take a cab.

At Dulles, isn't the taxi concession a monopoly awarded to the highest bidder? If so, then THAT'S the problem.

Posted by: John | June 27, 2006 11:54 AM

I,too, stood in line at National Airport waiting for a cab from 11:45 until 3am. Then I decided to find a place inside National airport to rest since no taxi's were showing going south. But to my amazement, there was not a place to sit or rest on any of the floors inside the airport. Every cranny and open space had bodies covered with blue blankets, even the chained wheel chairs. Finally around 4:15am, I called Yellow Cab and one finally picked me up (on the upper level, of course-I knew if he showed up on the lower level I would have been knocked down before I could get to him) and got home close to 6am. I will forever from now on park my truck at the airport no matter what the cost!

Posted by: A.G. | June 27, 2006 12:01 PM

Um, John -- Metro stops running at midnight Sunday through Thursday, which is very little help to anyone stuck at National at 2am on Sunday.

As for the poster upstream (that's a pun, boy, I said, a pun) claiming that it was like a disaster movie: spare me. Being inconvenienced in a heavy rain by not being able to hail a cab isn't a disaster -- not even close. Or were there hundreds of deaths at National Airport Sunday night that I didn't hear about?

Posted by: Duh | June 27, 2006 12:06 PM

I don't know what was worse on Sunday night, waiting 3 hours for a cab or once you got one talking him into taking you outside of downtown DC. It took me 4 cabs to get one to take me to Piney Branch and Aspen, and then only by telling him I lived off of 16th St.

Posted by: Amy | June 27, 2006 12:52 PM

I dont know why any seasoned traveled wouldnt have learned this lesson already - this is OLD NEWS at National. I had Red Top on speed dial and its the first # I call when the airplane is lands and is taxiing to the gate. In the 15 minutes it takes me to deplane and get to the upper level, the cab is always waiting.

Posted by: JC | June 27, 2006 1:20 PM

What do you people expect during a big storm? After having to deal with horrible system at National one time after coming in on a late night flight, I've sworn that I'll never do it again. Either I'll plan on having someone pick me up at the airport or just leave my car in the garage.

Posted by: AK | June 27, 2006 1:24 PM

Umm, Duh--I didn't say it was like a disaster movie in that people died. I meant in the sense that you had people acting irrationally thinking that it was a disaster--instead of just patiently waiting for the cabs to come and take them.

And calling for cabs wasn't really working, because even if you called for one, someone else would hop in it. I've seen National when it is busy, and it's workable. This was far worse because of the limited supply of cabs due to timing and weather, and extraordinarily high demand because all the planes landed within a 20 minute window of each other at 1 AM, when Metro was no longer an option.

Now, what might have worked was either (a) calling for a cab to the upper level (good call!) or (b) calling for a cab to the old Terminal, and taking a shuttle bus over to meet it.

Posted by: D.A. | June 27, 2006 4:16 PM

My husband and I will be flying into Dulles tomorrow arriving at 4:15 p.m. How can we get to DC Georgetown without loosing the whole night?. I have MS but I am not in a wheelchair. Thanks.

Posted by: cd | June 27, 2006 9:50 PM

I was in the same line for hours and didn't have the nerve to call my friends at 2 a.m. and wake them up. I was convinced I would have to wait until the Metro opened at 5 a.m. to get home, but luckily I made it to a cab at around 3:30 in the morning. I probably could have walked to my Adams-Morgan apartment faster. I wish Metro would run service longer on Sunday nights; it seems ridiculous that it closes at midnight.

Posted by: sm | June 29, 2006 5:42 PM

When flying in to Reagan or Dulles, always try to grab a cab at the departures level first. The cops are fairly inattentive, and MOST cabbies will accomodate. The current system is garbage, and deserves to be ignored. Hey, I'm all for reform, but in the meantime, I've got to get home in this lifetime.

Posted by: CPS | July 5, 2006 7:20 PM

On handling pasengers well because of weather-- all the Delta people that Monday night must have been here in DC - we were in Atlanta monday night after a diversion to Birmingham because of bad weather - that's ok but all connecting flights were gone when we got in and Delta opened 5 counter for reticketing- sounds like a lot but there had to be close to 1,000 people- 4 hrs later we were finally taken care of but of course spent the night in the terminal

Posted by: peter and Susan Gredler | July 5, 2006 9:14 PM

I was stuck in a similar line on Sunday night/Monday morning at Dulles. The airport guy told me there were 600 people in front of me in line. Taxis were refusing to take people to places they didn't like, and despite people calling other cab companies and asking them to come in the airport refused. I waited until morning and took the bus to the metro. After 36 hours of flying from SE Asia that was the last thing I needed.

Posted by: T | July 10, 2006 2:40 PM

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