Is Uber illegal?

(Photo: Jason Tester Guerilla / Flickr)

(Photo: Jason Tester Guerilla / Flickr)

The recent brouhaha between popular ride sharing services (such as Uber or Lyft) and airport authorities may have frequent travelers uneasy about using them for airport runs. San Francisco seems to be the locus of the current controversy, but airports are taking action in other cities, too. For example, San Antonio airport authorities cited drivers and impounded cars last week.  

Ride sharing services and apps have changed the landscape of business travel like nothing else since, say, the proliferation of mobile phones in the 1990′s.

I’m a huge fan and frequent user when I’m home or when I’m on the road. And I’m a particularly heavy user on airport runs– it’s just too easy, simple and comfortable compared to a clunky cab ride.

But I’ve wondered, and I know that many law abiding business travelers out there have wondered, too:

As much as I love my Uber rides to the airport, is it illegal? If I’m a passenger in car that’s pulled over at the airport for violating public utility commission statutes, can I be penalized?

Of course, the answer lies in a gray area.  So let’s break it down.

First off, if you use Uber Black (limo, sedan or SUV), your rides to or from the airport are legal. That’s because Uber Black drivers are professional livery drivers licensed by the Public Utilities Commission for airport runs. UberTaxi drivers are also authorized to make airport runs.  

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Uber Black cars are okay for airport runs (Photo: Adam Fagan / Flickr)

Uber Black cars are okay for airport runs (Photo: Adam Fagan / Flickr)

It gets gray when you choose the less expensive services that utilize private or “citizen” drivers (like UberX, Lyft) using their own cars, and not holding airport permits. The California Public Utilities Commission recently granted these companies (called Transportation Network Companies or TNCs) permits to operate in the state, but their permits specifically disallow airport runs. Here’s what UberX’s permit states:

UberX permit

There lies the crux of the issue: No airports have authorized the services to operate on their grounds. But in flagrant violation of the permit, they continue to drive thousands of us to and from airports across the US every single day. Now that UberX is cheaper, more convenient, and more comfortable than a taxi ride to the airport, I use it all the time. No one has ever told me what I’m doing is illegal.

And now it sounds like some, but not all UberX drivers have airport permits. In a statement to TravelSkills, an Uber spokesperson said, “We are currently working with SFO on permitting for all uberX drivers. Right now, travelers can request any driver partner that currently has an airport permit. This includes driver partners who are on both uberX and Black platforms. We encourage travelers to open the app, request a ride, and they will be connected to a ride.”

But a rash of recent reports state that airports are getting aggressive with enforcement action on UberX and Lyft. So, as a law abiding business traveler, I’m wondering, as I know you are:  If it is illegal for these companies to be operating at the airport, what happens to me if my driver gets pulled over? Could I get fined or penalized, too? As it stands right now, it sounds like the answer to that question is NO.

“Under the law as it stands right now, I don’t see any liability on the part of a passenger for an UberX or Lyft ride to or from the airport,” said travel law attorney Adam Anolik of the Anolik Law Group in Sausalito, CA. “The issue really comes down to whether what Uber and Lyft are doing is illegal. If it is, then technically passengers are conspiring with drivers to break the law.  But, since the law has never been applied to passengers in the past, passengers should feel safe using these services until the enforcement methods are changed,” he said. 

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So the biggest threat to your business travel schedule right now is the possibility of delay–  you might be in a car that is pulled over by police at a California airport for the driver to get an admonishment– airport police at SFO have nabbed at least 300 drivers in the last month

“Our enforcement effort is focused on the driver, with a verbal admonishment,” Doug Yakel, spokesperson for SFO told TravelSkills. “If the same individual has been given two admonishments, the third offense would lead to a citation. The citation is a notice to appear in court, where a judge would determine the fine, etc. So while this doesn’t affect riders, the fact remains that TNC operations at any airport in California require the specific authorization of that airport.”

Do you use UberX or Lyft to get to the airport? Have you seen a driver get an admonishment yet? Who do you think is going to win…or lose…in this struggle? Please leave your comments below.

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