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Tension mounting at South African airports as independe...

South Africa

TRAVEL ALERT

Tension mounting at South African airports as independent taxi operators masquerade as e-hailers

‘Uber’ drivers at the domestic arrivals entrance at Cape Town International Airport. (Photo:Supplied)

With the relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, passenger numbers at Cape Town International Airport and Johannesburg’s OR Tambo International Airport have increased. At the same time, there has been a proliferation of illegal taxi operators — many posing as e-hailers — in and around the airports. This affects the business of legitimate operators and also compromises the safety of those who use transport services.

There have been complaints of an increasing number of independent taxi operators posing as legitimate e-hailing drivers at Cape Town International Airport and OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. 

Amid the hustle and bustle of people streaming out of airport terminal buildings are any number of mostly men holding up phones or tatty, laminated cards that read “Uber”. 

Most of these “touters”, as the legitimate permit-holding taxi drivers call them, are not affiliated with an e-hailing service, but instead operate independently. This is according to Andre Abrahams, a taxi driver working with an authorised transport service at Cape Town International Airport.

airport taxi fake e-hailers
Airport users leaving Cape Town International Airport pass so-called ‘touters’ holding Uber signs on 13 December 2021. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“We believe they are just people from the outside coming to make money. I’m not saying they are wrongdoers or whatever, but they are definitely not [Uber drivers],” said Stuart*, another airport-affiliated taxi driver.

This was confirmed by Lucas*, an Uber driver in Cape Town. Official Uber drivers only operate via the app, and are not authorised to directly solicit business from people.

“[The touters] are not Uber drivers. They are all people who are hustling for themselves… they are not working for Uber,” said Lucas. “Ubers only wait outside the [airport] parking area, waiting for requests.”

Refentse Shinners, spokesperson for Airports Company South Africa (Acsa), said the airport has specific staging and pick-up areas for e-hailing services.

This was confirmed by Lucas: “[Uber drivers] have got a waiting area, so we wait for the person to book the ride and we drive from our waiting area to the Parkade 2. We just stop there in our car… we only get out to help passengers with their luggage.”

Taxi and shuttle operators who are authorised to work at the airport are issued operator and airport permits, for which they have to pay. They are provided with kiosks inside the terminal building and have visible signage and branding to ensure they are identifiable as authorised operators, said Shinners.

However, despite their lack of permits, unauthorised taxi operators have been able to access the terminal building, where they actively solicit business from arriving passengers, according to Abrahams.

“They come inside, like normal citizens, and pretend they’re waiting for someone… then they go up to people and say ‘Uber’,” he said.

airport taxi fake e-hailers
Airport users wait in an area that has been designated for e-hailing services to pick up clients at Cape Town International Airport on 9 February 2022. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

Stuart said the touters sneak into the airport by concealing their signs, only bringing them out when they approach the arrivals area in the terminal building. The airport company does not appear to be doing much to stop this practice, he said.

Abrahams said the unauthorised drivers affected the work of those with permits.

“We are legally inside, so you can imagine, if they are also coming inside… we’re standing here sometimes two hours or three hours for a flight, and then we don’t get [anything],” he said.

Competition from both e-hailing services and unauthorised operators has driven airport-affiliated drivers to start charging Uber rates — a practice they can ill afford considering that many only earn about 30% commission on trips, said Abrahams.

In some instances, the unauthorised operators will charge higher rates for international clients, he claimed. “They’re supposed to charge cheaper prices, but when I confronted two or three of them, it turned out they also charged the same price or they charged more because a lot of people don’t know the prices.”

Amy Cupido, a consultant at the Cape Town Tourism desk at the airport confirmed that the touters were negatively affecting accredited taxi drivers. 

“I get a lot of people come and ask me, ‘Are they safe?’” said Cupido. For security reasons, she advises people to use airport-affiliated taxi operators or an e-hailer app, rather than independent operators.

Acsa and Uber 

Shinners says Acsa is aware that there are people who do not work for e-hailing companies, but who display e-hailing signs and pick up passengers from the airport.

airport taxi fake e-hailers
Airport users wait in an area that has been designated for e-hailing services to pick up clients at Cape Town International Airport on 9 February 2022. (Photo: Tamsin Metelerkamp)

“Airports Company does not approve of this informal practice and have been working with various security agencies, particularly the South African Police Service, to address this matter,” he said.

“Airport users’ safety may be compromised if they continue to use operators who do not have the required licences or permits to operate.”

While permission has not been given to unauthorised transport operators to operate in any area of the airport, the areas outside the terminal are “landside” areas that are open to the general public. The airport terminal is open to all and, as such, operators sometimes enter the terminal under the guise of collecting a passenger, friend or family member, or needing to use the airport facilities, said Shinners.

“Our security and operational teams, as well as the SAPS, will respond if an instance of an unauthorised operator soliciting business inside the terminal building is observed,” he added.

Uber has been engaging with Acsa to address the issue of independent operators posing as Uber drivers, according to Mpho Sebelebele, head of communications at Uber.

“Travellers deserve to feel safe, no matter how they get to and from the airport and should have the correct information made available to them,” said Sebelebele.

“Rides on the Uber platform can only be requested through the app, so no matter how much of a hurry someone may be in, we urge them not to feel pressured to accept airport hail solicitations from anyone claiming to be operating on the Uber app,” he continued.

Acsa has received complaints about the harassment of airport passengers by fake e-hailer drivers and has responded to these incidents with the support of SAPS, according to Shinners.

airport taxi fake e-hailers
‘Uber’ drivers at the domestic arrivals entrance at Cape Town International Airport. (Photo: Supplied)

“Depending on the nature of the incident, appropriate action has been taken — this ranges from warnings to removal from the premises or arrest,” he said. 

Despite this, the number of unauthorised operators at the airport has been increasing, according to James*, a frequent flyer who works in the tourism industry.

“I fly often… and I’m from Cape Town so I know the spiel here with the [touters],” said Smith. “But it’s become so bad now that the last time I came back, when I got through the gate there were literally 30 people with fake Uber signs.”

Some of the men with fake signs followed Smith out of the airport, he claimed.

 “Outside the airport at the smoking area, it’s even worse,” said Smith. “They’ll come behind you and peek over your shoulder to see what you’re doing on your phone, to see if you’re on the Uber app, and if you are, they’ll ask if they can take you instead.”

Shinners explained that the relaxation of Covid restrictions has resulted in a steady increase in passenger numbers, thereby attracting more illegal operators and touters. Among the mechanisms that will be used to manage the situation are:

  • A reassessment of the deployment of security in the main areas of the airport where these illegal operators are prevalent, and a strengthening of security and enforcement;
  • A re-engagement with SAPS to strengthen their deployment and enforcement; and
  • The removal of people who continue touting instead of genuinely being there to meet friends or family.
airport taxi fake e-hailers
‘Uber’ drivers at the domestic arrivals entrance at Cape Town International Airport. (Photo: Supplied)

Acsa has started a programme to incorporate some of the unauthorised operators into the airport’s formal taxi management service, according to Shinners. Those who go through the relevant processes will begin paying for permits.

“This is at an advanced stage and operators have already submitted applications, which the Airports Company is evaluating in conjunction with the relevant security agencies and transport authorities,” said Shinners. 

“However, it must be emphasised that there is a limit to the number of operators that can sustainably operate at our airports, and this limit will be imposed.” 

Wider taxi conflict

Conflicts between independent taxi operators and e-hailers are nothing new.

In 2016, dozens of metered taxi drivers clashed with police in Cape Town during a protest against the growing popularity of Uber. The protesters blocked Long Street, with one metered taxi driver even attempting to prevent a passenger from taking an Uber, according to a Daily Maverick report from 15 July 2016.

Simmering tensions between metered taxi and e-hailer drivers in 2017 culminated in the death of a Taxify (now Bolt) driver. He was set alight in his own vehicle by metered taxi drivers in Pretoria. His death resulted in other drivers demanding justice, according to a Daily Maverick report from 6 July 2021.

airport taxi fake e-hailers
‘Uber’ drivers at the domestic arrivals entrance at Cape Town International Airport. (Photo: Supplied)

The report shows that more recently, in 2021, conflict between metered taxi drivers and e-hailers increased around the Pretoria Gautrain station, with metered drivers threatening e-hailing drivers if they picked up passengers in that area. This also affected the safety of passengers, as e-hailer drivers would ask to meet them elsewhere rather than the designated pick-up spot.

A point of contention in the conflict has been the lack of regulation of e-hailing services. The National Land Transport Amendment Bill, which provides a clear regulatory framework for e-hailing services as a mode of public transport, was passed by Parliament in March 2020. However, in September 2021, President Cyril Ramaphosa declined to sign the bill into law, citing reservations about its constitutionality, according to a TimesLIVE report from 22 September 2021.

With e-hailing services continuing to threaten metered taxi drivers’ long-standing dominance in their sector of the public transport market, further conflict is likely. However, it seems that some taxi operators have now turned from fighting Uber drivers to pretending to be them. DM

*Stuart, Lucas and James are fake names ascribed to individuals who chose to stay anonymous out of concern for their jobs.

What is your experience of getting a taxi from South Africa’s airports? Share with [email protected]

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All Comments 8

  • Pathetic ACSA and SAPS. Nice story
    Very long about very little. Cops and Company doing nothing as usual until the trend is noted that people are getting robbed or worse still getting murdered and there goes your tourism industry again.

  • Surely the safety of the travellers is priority. ACSA should put large signs in arrivals and at the entrances, warning travellers that they should only use e-hailing or airport approved operators, and have security remove the touters. It is not rocket science

  • Go to the drop off or pick up zone at OR Tambo
    It is packed with “serial parkers” I have watched whilst waiting for a pick up, cars 3 deep very dodgy looking character’s on the prowl
    Plenty cops but !!

  • This is a real problem which has escalated over the past 2-3 years, now to a point where it’s untenable. I can’t believe nothing is being done about this as it is really unsafe and damaging our reputation from a tourism safety perspective. A new arrival to SA could get into one of these and end up anywhere… And they blatently use the Uber name on these signs… why aren’t Uber doing anything about it? And the Uber App for so many people doesn’t work on their phones anymore… all driving people to use their own vehicle, suffering in the horrendous traffic (another issue to focus on please) and incurring the outrageous ACSA parking tariffs at the airport – maybe this is all connected??!!

    • Recently went through the “newly revamped” arrivals area.
      Touters aside, it was a complete shambles! It was gridlocked and total chaos, with vehicles stopping anywhere they wished and users of honest uber drivers waiting for over an hour for their arrival.
      A total embarrassment, and someone needs to now step in and clean the whole mess up!!

  • Got in from NYC last week and my girlfriend commented on all the “fake Uber people” as you exit the terminal to go to the drop-and-go at Cape Town International. It’s terrible, and they are incredibly forceful. I cannot imagine how many tourists get scammed by these guys. ACSA and SAPS (their station is literally 40m away) need to remove these guys and arrest the ones that keep coming back.

    There is no rule and order at many of the airports, and until it’s enforced, in true South African style, it’ll just decline and decline.

  • Touts are the same problem at any international airport.

    Personally, I don’t understand how formal taxis with regulations on drivers and vehicles are now at the stage where touts pretending to be app-drivers are a threat. It should be the other way around.

    taking an Uber (or the other hailing rides) is basically a toin coss for any passenger that is not in line to be a springbok forward.

  • I’m sure security would get involved when someone punches one of these guys while someone just happens to be filming.
    It’s pretty simple. Put x1 security guy at the pickup, create some employment.

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