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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  • Bito

    I love taxis… Said no one ever! Taxi companies are relying on regulation to force people to use them .. but no one wants to because the cars are janky, the drivers are rude, and they are expensive and inconvenient. I drive for uber and 75% of the passengers say how much they LOVE Uber and hate taxis. If taxis didn’t provide such horrible service they wouldn’t be in the spot they are in now.

  • Darth Chocolate

    After some thought, I would say, that if the state or local government requires a certain level of registration and a company is not complying with that requirement, then it is in fact illegal. For example, just because weed is legal in Colorado does not mean that someone could set up a business that makes home deliveries through a web app. Because the places where weed is sold are regulated.

    Likewise a university run by a state has an obligation to uphold the laws of the state and if the law says you must be registered, then you better be registered to get the universities’ business. That means if an employee is expecting reimbursement and the university says “It’s an Uber reciept and that is out of policy, so no reimbursement”, then tough, you are SOL.

  • Dwimby

    I have never used Uber and I am just coming to understand what it is — I am waaaay beyond being a Millennial. One unanswered factoid kinda thought that occurs to me is: what if the Uber car has a mechanical issue and someone is hurt on the way to the airport, i.e., say the Uber vehicle’s brakes fail or some such? How do liability issues shake out then if the Uber driver is “driving for hire” but does not have the matching “commercial” auto insurance? An issue? Not an issue? (“Not an issue” in our lawyer whacko litigious society?) I wonder.

  • Ryan

    This is a fantastic point. I agree 100%. What is the actual difference between asking your neighbors and asking a “neighbor” via Uber. Nothing, except the taxi-monopolies do not like competition and have lobbyists.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Good question. I’ll ask Uber to respond…– chris

  • Dave

    Chris, I love Uber X for runs to SFO. I have 2 questions for SFO involving Uber X. (1) Your quote of the Uber spokesperson is unclear. Newspaper articles have said it is illegal for Uber X drivers to take passengers to the airport, but you say that it is now ok for SOME Uber X drivers to go to the airport. How is a passenger to know? I don’t want to use the app to get a Uber X driver for an airport run, only to be told when the driver arrives that he/she can’t go to SFO, which then forces me to try again and again until I find a driver who can?? I don’t see any option on the Uber app to find an SFO-licensed Uber X driver? (2) For SFO-licensed Uber X drivers, can they do airport pickups? If so, do I just use the Uber app the same way as if I was at home? Thanks.

  • Paul Steinberg

    The answer to your question depends upon where you are. For example UberX and Lyft are currently legal in San Francisco, but illegal in Houston. The livery or “for hire” industry is generally regulated at the city level although a few states (CA, CO, GA) have passed state laws either supporting or outlawing TNCs (Transportation Network Companies). These new forms of transportation are of most interest to frequent travelers like Chris McGinnis, and city dwelling millenniums.

    I would like to clarify two items discussed in this article;

    1) Please recognize that UberX and Lyft are not ridesharing vendors. This miscommunication was started by these vendors to avoid regulations, and unfortunately the media and bloggers have continued to use this term. This is a terrible mistake as true legal ridesharing transports 4 times more people each and every day than ALL cab/taxi rides combined. further, “Ridesharing” is a Federally defined legal term that is attached to $2.5 Billion dollars in US Tax payor tax credits and incentives and covers carpooling and van pooling. I explain the Federal and State laws and differences in depth in my blog post at http://paulasteinberg.com/captain-carpool-policy-makers/ We would ask everyone to use the term adopted by CA, CO and Seattle and refer to them as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs).

    2) As a passenger you are not breaking any laws by using these services, but your are not correct in your assumption of insurance coverage. Again miscommunications by these vendors, but a simple fact checking email or call to your State Insurance regulator would be a very smart step to understand that answer depends upon your state. After a one-year pilot in California, the state is updating regulations for TNCs to cover this very gap, but in other states the type of insurance policy UberX and Lyft are currently offering does NOT guarantee coverage for passengers.

    Finally let me make a comment on why regulating the “for hire” driver industry is important to the safety of the public. If you buy a mobile phone application that is no good, then the worst thing that might happen is you could loose data. If you buy a ride from a “for hire” driver in a 4,000 lbs vehicle, then the worst thing that might happen is someone could loose their life http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/01/27/uber-and-a-childs-death/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0

    Regulators and City Officials are citizens just like yourself. They are not bad people just for working for the government, and they are looking after the public interest. While I may agree there needs to be more transportation options, and maybe the existing livery industry needs to change, but blatantly ignoring laws and legal public methods for making change is irresponsible and a dangerous precedent. Would you support drug companies ignore regulators and start selling drugs without trials or pilots?

    In summary, you may not be breaking any laws by taking UberX or Lyft to/from the airport, but you are putting yourself and others in danger by supporting these vendors in any market where they are not properly licensed and regulated.

    Disclosure: I am Vice President for Carma Carpool who is considered a “legal” ridesharing provider as defined by the Federal Government.

  • mz

    Really makes you wonder why us taxpayers have to pay the police and airport officials to stand around and harass UberX and Lyft drivers.

  • http://www.eatitatlanta.com jimmy

    Atlanta is the worst I’ve ever seen.

  • DR

    Just to clarify Oakland’s ground transportation rules in this area are different than SFO’s.
    For drop offs at Oakland or pre arranged pick-ups at OAK no airport permit is required, and no airport fee is paid.
    So at OAK Lyft, Uber etc are only prohibited from providing only on-demand , ie walk ups.

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Uber drivers are covered by a $1 million liablility policy http://blog.uber.com/ridesharinginsurancepolicy –chris

  • Darth Chocolate

    Just playing Devil’s Advocate here. What happens if you are travelling on business and there is an accident? Are you covered? By whom (Uber, the driver, your company)? Many companies will not allow their employees to take a service that has no proof of insurance (taxis and limos are regulated and coverage is mandated).

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Angelina! Lucky you! Uber was successfully banned from Miami for quite a while, but I’ve heard it’s back on the streets. –Chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thank, Levy! I’d hate to be that poor person with the clipboard…. what a job :/
    Chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Ah! Peak summer travel season and strikes have begun in Europe. Always seems to happen during tourist season — chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    You are right, Jim! I’d hate to be the cop at the airport trying to figure out who was UberX and who was not. At least Lyft has the pink moustaches! — chris

  • http://www.travelskills.com/ Chris McGinnis

    Thanks, Rupee! I’ve had similar experiences with cabs in Dallas… and Atlanta. YUCK! Uber so much better! — chris

  • Rupee

    I think people are just fed up with old school taxis in general. They have had the monopoly for so long and just assumed they would continue to have that monopoly while offering terrible service. On a recent trip to Dallas I used Uber or Uber X for most of my rides but for just one time because this cab was sitting outside of the lobby of my hotel when I got down there. The cab stunk terribly of cigarette smoke. The driver acted like he was clueless about where I was going. The last straw was he demanded a $2 or $3 surcharge that he insisted that city required for him to collect. That was the one and only time I used a taxi in Dallas. I used Uber or Uber X at least 10 times while I was there and had all pleasant experiences. I rated on driver badly because of the route taken and Uber contacted me and agreed that the driver took a bad route and thus refunded me some money. They are the wave of the future and I say bring it on. If traditional cab drivers wanted to stay in business then maybe they should have been offering better service instead of mediocre service all these years.

  • Jim

    Agree with the rest of the comments. What distinguish UberX driver from a friend who drop me off at the airport?? No money changing hands so technically the driver drops me off at curbside (like my “friend” would), I grab my luggage and bid adieu. How is THAT illegal ?

  • Darth Chocolate

    Very informative. However, I happen to be in France this week, and the taxis are on strike protesting Uber. And the TGV is striking in sympathy, running 1 of 3 trains; on Sunday I paid for a seat and was able to stand for the 2 hour trip from CDG to Lyon.

  • Levy

    I have seen SFO airport staff waving around clip board and peering into Uber cars trying to intimidate passenger.

  • BCTBC

    cheaper is better! no one pays taxes that way! very cool.

  • Eric H.

    I love Uber and I used it all the time when I’m on the road (they don’t operate in my hometown). Frankly, the regulations against Uber and similar services is nothing more than corrupt racket protection.

  • Angelina Aucello

    I just used Uber today to go from South Beach to MIA and it was cheaper than a taxi. I am an Uber-a-holic. The taxi monopolies are out of hand and they’re terrible. Uber rides are hassle free and less intimidating.