Is road hog revving up?

The airport held a series of focus groups Dec. 14 and 15 to get ideas on how to structure a new contract focusing solely on luxury town cars. But at least one driver fears the airport's motive was to find ways to limit the participation of small, independent drivers.

"They do want to develop some kind of service," says Kenneth Corely, a former Mears taxi driver who unsuccessfully sued Mears and the airport several years ago charging restraint of trade. "But they don't want to help us. I think they want to study us."

The airport insists its motives are pure. And in a Dec. 1 memo, Paul Issler, the airport's assistant director of operations, spells out a scenario that could benefit people such as Corely. That memo says the airport is considering awarding the contract under its Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, Minority/Women Business Enterprise or New Local Developing Business Enterprise policy.

It's unclear exactly how a Mears-owned company could qualify under those definitions. But it is clear that John Mears, a director and vice president of the transit companies owned by his brother Paul, presented himself to a focus group as a prospective town-car operator.

"I'm not in the town-car biz personally; I don't own town cars," Mears told the focus group on Dec. 15, according to a tape recording of the session provided by Corely. "My goal is to put myself in the town-car business."

Currently just two companies -- Mears and Transtar -- have the airport's blessing to operate "multiservice transportation concessions" consisting of shuttle, limousine and luxury town-car service at the airport. Established in 1990, those contracts are awarded every four or five years. The current one runs to September 1999.

As the primary concession holder, Mears controls about 80 percent of the shuttle business, much of which is sold in advance to tour groups. Limousines and town cars also can be sold in advance, but a portion of those trips are generated by "walk-ups" -- passengers that drivers such as Corely, who lack a concession agreement, are not allowed to pick up.

Town cars differ from taxis in that they are hired not on a meter, but rather on a per-trip or hourly basis. At the airport, fees to popular destinations are posted. In exchange for allowing its drivers to do business there, the airport then collects a percentage of the outbound fee from the concessionaires.

Independent drivers can pick up prearranged fares; they pay at least $4.35 per trip to meet their passengers. Complaints by Mears that these drivers illegally solicit passengers has caused airport security to hand out a stream of fines and temporary banishments. But many independents complain of lack of due process.

Corely and Howard Gumbs, another critic of the airport and Mears, say they were not invited to the focus groups. Both went anyway and saw John Mears, who says he was "just there exploring options." He adds that Corely was "so militant that four other independents walked out in protest."

Corely says the others left as he delivered an historical explanation. And Corely's history -- that Mears caused a private investigator to tar all the independent drivers as scofflaws, which in turn caused the airport to establish the multiservice concession, for which Mears was the sole bidder -- is correct ["Special Livery," Oct. 8, 1998].

Corely would like to form a drivers' cooperative, an idea airport officials say they encouraged back in 1990. Last summer, city of Orlando taxi regulators pledged to rewrite the city's taxi-permitting system to allow a drivers' cooperative to get some of the permits, which are mostly held by Mears and its subsidiaries. But nothing has been done.

Airport officials will use the focus groups to shape the bid specifications it should issue early next summer. The details of that bid package will show how serious the airport is about opening its ground transportation business to competitors other than Mears.

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