Uber unblocks Honolulu airport pickups despite permit issues

It just got a lot easier to book an Uber ride from Hawaii’s busiest airport.

Always Investigating found out the ride-sharing giant has unblocked Honolulu International Airport on its app, causing an outcry from taxi and commercial drivers who carry costly airport permits. They say their own business has plummeted by half in just a couple of days.

Since 2014, ride-sharing company Uber has blocked Honolulu International Airport on its app for noncommercial bookings, meaning customers could only arrange an Uber ride with an “Uber Select” driver who also has all the state commercial stickers and permits too; about a dozen of them in Honolulu.

Always Investigating found out that has just changed.

“The Uber rider app suddenly and without warning was allowing riders to request UberX and UberXL rides at the airport,” said UberSelect driver Brenten Yamane, owner of Kanoa Transportation.

“I’m doing approximately, I’d say 50 percent of the business I was doing prior,” said Matthew Wetzel, another UberSelect driver who also operates as a commercially permitted airport company. “I’m irritated. I’m upset. My profit margins were small enough as it was prior to it, and now it’s making it really difficult.”

So why the change? The block at the airport was essentially a courtesy while Uber attempted to negotiate options with regulators.

Uber said in a statement, “We have worked with local policymakers and regulators to provide convenient and affordable transportation options to locals and visitors alike.”

They tell Always Investigating the move to unblock bookings will “offer a seamless and reliable travel experience throughout the state, including Honolulu International Airport.”

Nothing has changed between the state and the company and there is no airport agreement between them.

The state Department of Transportation responded to Uber’s moves this week telling Always Investigating: “Uber does not currently have either a permit or authorization to provide or facilitate ground transportation at any of the public airports.”

“I think they’re trying to push the local government or whoever else to force their way into the airport,” Wetzel said.

“I understand where Uber is coming from,” Yamane said, “but on the other hand, bullying your way into the state wouldn’t be my first choice. I would still negotiate.”

The DOT adds: “Uber or their contractors can follow the steps expected of all commercial operators and apply for a permit to operate legally.”

Meanwhile airport security is stepping up their watch for violators, who could get slapped with a $500 fine and a criminal violation.

“Even in this short period, the Uber drivers have found out about that. They’re removing the stickers from their windshield, they’re telling customers, ‘Take a free shuttle to the rent-a-car facility, I’ll pick you up over there,’ so they’re finding ways to circumvent the pickup procedures at the airport, even in just the few days,” Yamane said. “With Uber giving drivers the means to do pickups, I feel they’re just as guilty as the drivers that are committing the violation.”

During the nearly two years HNL was blocked on the app, some say enforcement varied.

“Did you ever notice that Uber was getting treated more harshly during the blackout that another ride-sharing company?” Always Investigating asked Yamane.

“I guess you could say that,” he replied. “What I would say is Uber has been in the news more than Lyft. Uber is the dominant company so perhaps that’s why Uber gets more attention. They didn’t get as much scrutiny as Uber did, Uber being the larger dominant party.”

“You now have a lot of drivers that are ignorant of the regulations going in and doing whatever they like, putting themselves at risk while Uber sits back and washed their hands of the whole affair,” Wetzel said.

Uber drivers can choose whether or not to accept the ride requests.

When Always Investigating looked at the app Thursday for UberX availability, it said an UberX driver would pick up curbside. Airport permittees tell us only designated commercial areas across the median are allowed for commercially permitted paid rides.

We’ll follow up to see if the state makes any moves on enforcement. At this time, the un-blocking on the app is only at Honolulu International Airport.

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