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Friday, 22 February 2019 01:56 am

Exclusive taxi stand deals make life tough for small operator cabbies

Are Wellington’s big taxi companies freezing out small competitors by signing exclusive deals with big customers? GREG FORD and MOHAMMAD NAZAYER investigate:

SMALL operators in Wellington’s cut-throat taxi industry say they are being shut out by special agreements between the city’s biggest cab operators and major corporate customers.

There is resentment among drivers at companies like Kiwi Cabs and Wellington Taxis, which missed out on the deals being made by Wellington Combined Taxis, Green Cabs and Corporate Cabs.

They now have exclusive rights to taxi hot spots, after a series of agreements made over the last year, starting with Wellington Combined Taxis gaining sole rights to the nearest lane on the airport arrivals concourse.

A similar deal followed with Wellington Hospital in Newtown that allows Combined sole access to the concourse outside the front door.

And other dedicated Combined ranks have since appeared at Te Papa, New World City and Thorndon supermarkets, the James Cook and Duxton Hotels, and Westpac Stadium.

Combined denies the deals are unfair and says other companies could either tender for the ranks or they could build similar relationships with businesses.

The drivers and companies who have been left out feel aggrieved, although they are not willing to be identified or photographed because they fear repercussions.

“It’s not fair,” says one woman driver. “We have had no local politicians looking at our case, which we would like to see happen.”

Another driver: “They (Combined) have their rank closest to the door, and have runners who usher customers towards their taxis, so the customers don’t even see our cars on the other side of the road. All we do is pick up scraps of business.”

One said he had been at the airport from 4.30am until 2.30pm the day NewsWire talked to him, and he had picked up only four jobs.

They claim a sign which used to show customers the minimum fares to get to Wellington suburbs has been removed.

“The fares of Combined Taxis used to be cheaper than ours, but after this agreement their fares went up, while we had to bring our prices down,” says one of the drivers. (Combined denies it has changed its fare rates).

“The fact that most people were not aware of the change in prices makes things harder for us,” he says.

Small taxi company drivers also say some of their colleagues have been lost to Combined, contrary to an earlier claim by Wellington Taxi Alliance chairwomen Fa’atupu Sasa, who said this would not happen.

Kiwi Taxis spokesman Logan Pithyou (right) says because of the deal, about 20 drivers had gone over to Combined and Green Cabs to get more business.

The trouble started in June last year  when the airport deal gave Wellington Combined Taxis a “plum” spot right outside the terminal doors for a reported sum of $1.3 million a year over three years.

Complaints from other companies flooded into the Commerce Commission in September, claiming it gave Combined an unfair competitive advantage.

However, NZPA reported that the commission rejected the complaints, saying the arrangement was not breaching commercial law.

Commerce Commission general manager Kate Morrison said consumers still have a choice of taxis: “They can simply walk past the Wellington Combined Taxi rank if they wish.”

Wellington Combined Taxi’s marketing manager, Ani Connolly, says the company has not changed its fares since the airport deal, and having dedicated taxi stands around Wellington has not necessarily helped its business.

“A lot of our taxi ranks are at hotels and due to the recession a lot of Government and corporate [clients] have pulled back on their travel,” she says. “Our taxi work has been down just like everybody else’s.”

She believes that paying for ranks which used to be free is still good for competition.

“This practice has been going on for years throughout New Zealand. It gives businesses the opportunity to have a reputable company associated with them. Our taxi ranks are all on private land.

“Wellington Combined Taxis used to pay for the second lane at the airport, while the other companies got the first lane for free.”

She feels the competition is fair: “Other companies could either tender for the Airport/Te Papa ranks or they could build relationships with businesses like we do.”

In response to other complaints from drivers of other companies, Ms Connelly confirmed that Wellington Combined Taxis does employ airport hosts to usher customers to their cars.

She claims not to be aware of a sign showing minimum fares being removed, and he was unwilling to give details of any deals agreed with Wellington Hospital or Te Papa.

“Wellington Combined Taxis always look forward to building positive relationships with businesses who want to create partnerships with them.”

Capital and Coast District Health Board (which controls Wellington Hospital) and the Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa, declined to provide details of supplier agreements between themselves and Wellington Combined Taxis.

Green Cabs has taken steps to try to attract more customers, using a green truck with the slogan “Cheaper than Combined” parked near the airport or driving around the city.

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown says there are too many taxis in the city: “Limiting taxi numbers…is an area for lobbying NZTA (NZ Transport Agency), because we (city council) don’t issue the licences.”

There are currently 1237 taxis on the road in the Capital, compared with about 400 before de-regulation in 1989.

Green Cabs did not respond to our request for their views, and a Corporate Cabs manager declined to make any comments.

What you pay

Latest taxi prices were published in July last year, and showed Kiwi Cabs being the cheapest, with Wellington Combined Taxis rating fifth cheapest.

A Wellington Combined Taxi driver recently estimated the cost from the airport to the Wellington CBD as between $30 -$35 off peak, and $40 during peak time.

On its website, Wellington Airport quotes a guide price of between $28-$35 for a similar journey.

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