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Limo Drivers Hit the Hill

They Say Surcharges Are Driving Them Out of Business

One day, in the not-so-distant future, when you walk out of the airport on your next business trip, a familiar sight may be missing: your ride.

At least for those travelers regularly ferried home in a limousine.

Limo drivers are in the midst of a pitched battle with some airports who insist on charging them a fee for the privilege of picking up customers. Limousine operators say that’s forbidden by the 2002 Real Interstate Driver Equity Act. And on Tuesday, some 70 limo operators came to Washington, D.C., to drive that point home.

Ushered from their Georgetown hotel in shiny black minibuses reminiscent of the vehicles many of them oversee, National Limousine Association members met with the staffs of more than 50 Members of Congress to advocate lower costs for their industry.

“This really is about survival,” said Barbara Curtis of Two Step Limousine, based in Littleton, Colo. Curtis said the situation in her state is so bad that as many as one-third of its limousine companies — most of which are one-, two- or three-car operations — are going out of business every year.

It’s a war of surcharges and phrases like “Automatic Vehicle Identification transponders,” which track limos as they enter the airport perimeter, and looping fees, which some airports charge limousines each time they circle an airport.

The surcharge problems are becoming worse, NLA members told Congressional staffers. As more cash-strapped airports learn of others’ success implementing the surcharges, the fees are spreading like “cancer” and further threatening the industry.

Association members noted that with many of their clients using expense accounts, if the price of a limo ride continues to rise, these customers won’t be able to justify the extra costs and will be forced to use taxicabs, which are almost always less expensive.

As the limo operators pressed their case on Capitol Hill, they invariably brought into their arguments the safety of the nation’s women and children as well.

According to a 1999 USA Today article on female limousine customers included in the NLA’s lobbying package, many female executives are more trusting of limousines than taxicabs. “They perceive luxury sedan services, where the driver meets them in an airport terminal, as safer than catching a cab in a strange city,” according to the article.

Officials added this safety aspect is compounded when women are traveling with children and noted that chauffeurs also provide assistance with luggage and other services.

Barry Lefkowitz, the NLA’s in-house lobbyist, said that while it may be a common perception, bolstered by numerous movies and television shows, that limousines are surrounded by an aura of money, it’s not a perception based on fact.

“Their images are of deep pockets,” he said during a meeting in the office of Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.). “Maybe some people who ride in the limos have deep pockets, but those aren’t the operators.”

Nathan Higdon, who runs L’Espace Motorcoach Inc. in Maryville, Tenn., agreed.

“The glamorous stuff is few and far between,” he said. “We don’t carry rock stars, we carry prom kids.”

Like most limousine providers, Higdon’s is a small business, so when it comes to airports things can get expensive. He noted the Knoxville, Tenn., airport currently charges $75 per car per month for limos to serve its facility.

Many of these fees, the association argued, were supposed to be prevented by the 2002 law.

Lefkowitz said that while most airports were complying with the act, there were still a few, including the Baltimore/Washington International Airport, where the law was flouted. A spokesman for the Maryland Aviation Administration did not return calls for comment.

At several meetings Tuesday, Lefkowitz repeated a story about an earlier meeting between the NLA, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett (R-Md.) and officials at BWI over its airport surcharges. In justifying the charges, terminal officials pointed to a letter from the Federal Aviation Administration encouraging airports to be more “self-sufficient.” The officials, Lefkowitz said, were using this as rationale to assess the charges, an argument that left Bartlett wondering whether the airport authorities believed an FAA letter allowed them to supercede federal law.

To fix the situation for good, the NLA wants to attach an amendment to the RIDE Act in the upcoming FAA reauthorization bill, expected to go to the House floor in early July.

The new language would strictly prohibit any “transportation terminal” that receives federal funding from charging any provider of prearranged ground transportation, that is, a limousine, any fee in excess of that charged to the general public.

In other words, it would ensure the protection of the nation’s small businesses, women, children, and, just maybe, some millionaire’s toy dog and designer-bag-toting celebrity daughter.

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