Airport Taxi Company Urged To "Play By The Rules" - WMBB News 13 - The Panhandle's News Leader

Airport Taxi Company Urged To "Play By The Rules"

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Play by the rules or find another curb to park your cabs.

That's the message to a ground transportation company from the chairman of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport Authority.  John Pilcher, III issued the ultimatum after several of Sunshine Shuttle's competitors once again complained of unfair business practices at Wednesday's board meeting.

Sunshine Shuttle recently entered into an agreement that gives it the first shot at providing transportation.  The contract is not exclusive but, by paying a premium, the company is allowed to have a kiosk inside the terminal and a prime spot outside the entrance.  Competing taxi companies line the curb across from the terminal entrance.

The airport struck the deal in hopes of making it easier for passengers to arrange rides.  "We want the passengers to be able to make a choice of which level of transportation they want," Parker McClellan, ECP Executive Director, said.  "There are advantages Sunshine has and many of those are a result of them paying the premium to be at that next level of service."

Other companies accuse Sunshine of exploiting its preferred vendor status.  They claim employees don't limit sales efforts to the kiosk, but approach potential customers in other areas of the terminal and give the impression that Sunshine is the only transportation provider.

McClellan recently had Sunshine remove an unauthorized sign.  "It was misleading," McClellan said.  "It suggested Sunshine was the only provider."

Representatives of two companies, Liberty Shuttle and Beeline Taxi, asked the airport board to intervene.  "They really do not understand the taxi business as it's laid out," Jim Van Dommelen, owner of Liberty Shuttle, said after the meeting.  "They don't understand how hard we're out here working just to get one ride a day."

Pilcher chalked some of the complaints up to "industry jealousies," but minced no words in criticizing Sunshine's performance.  "If it continues, we have an out in these contracts and we will pull the trigger and move on," he said.  "If you're going to break the rules then there will be some substantial consequences that will have to be faced and if termination is one of them, then so be it."

Till Bruett, Vice Chairman, has participated in several meetings with the taxi owners to try to work out their differences.  He said some of the claims are exaggerated but acknowledged their business has been adversely affected by ECP's agreement with Sunshine.  "We've got to smooth it out, make it work and make it so it affects our customers positively, not negatively," Bruett said.

In a telephone interview after the meeting, Sunshine Shuttle's owner denied operating outside the agreement and said many issues associated with the new deal have been worked out.  "We are trying to bring a higher level of service to the area and in a way the board supports," John Finch said.  "We all want this to be successful."

Finch said he has received positive feedback through customer surveys and has great relationships and open lines of communications with airport officials.  He dismissed competitors' complaints as little more than sour grapes.  "All parties had an opportunity to bid on this," Finch said.  "We were awarded a contract and we are fulfilling the contract."

Bruett defended the airport's decision to offer a premium service but said Sunshine must operate within the guidelines of the agreement.  "I think Mr. Finch loves to push the envelope as far as he can," Bruett said.  "He's got to realize that he can push the envelope too far."

Pilcher said other companies can't offer all the services Sunshine Shuttle offers, but the playing field must be level when the services are the same.  "Mr. Finch needs to understand the ramifications of anything his employees do that is out of order," Pilcher said.  "If it continues, he will be looking for another place to park his cabs."

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In other business, the board agreed to sell property at 3127 Lisenby Avenue to St. Andrew Bay Land Company, the company planning to develop the old airport site, for $375,000.  In addition, a 10 acre parcel at the end of Frankford Avenue will be transferred to the company.  The former site of the Florida A&M University Entomology Research Center was included in the sale of the airport property, contingent on the state transferring the deed.  When that came to fruition, St. Andrew Bay Land Company exercised its option.

The board voted to finance construction of covered parking with a $700,000 loan from Summit Bank and selected Marshall Brothers Industrial as the contractor for the horizontal construction portion of the project.

McClellan advised the board that Richard McConnell, former airport director in Boise, Idaho, has been hired as ECP's Deputy Executive Director.  His first day on the job will be August 18.