More Americans are flying than ever before, and they’re increasingly relying on ridesharing companies to get them to and from airports, creating nightmare traffic scenarios at terminals around the country. 

Responding to the crush of vehicles, airports and cities have started making changes. Los Angeles International Airport recently announced that it was banning ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft from picking up passengers outside its terminals.

While Phoenix and Sky Harbor International Airport have not gone that far, they too made headlines this week after the Phoenix City Council voted 7-2 to approve a $4 fee for rideshare pick-ups and drop-offs at the airport starting on Jan 1, 2020. The surcharge will increase by a quarter each year, until it hits $5 each way in 2024.

A growing city’s plan to reduce airport traffic 

The city hopes that the new fees will reduce the number of vehicles at airport terminals — ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft make up 70% of commercial traffic at the airport, up from only 9.3% in 2016. 

Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the nation and welcomed 25,288 new residents between 2017 and 2018 — more than any other American city, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But as the city’s population continues to boom, its starting to face big city problems.

Sky Harbor saw a record 44,943,686 passengers travel through its gates in 2018 — an increase of 4.5 million passengers since 2013. And as the presence of ridesharing companies and the number of passengers has grown, so has the volume of traffic. 

The city hopes that the surcharge will encourage passengers to use the free PHX Sky Train, the department said in a press release after the vote.

“Incentivizing PHX Sky Train pick-up and drop-off will help ease traffic congestion and improve air quality by reducing the number of idling vehicles at Airport curbs,” the release read. 

Travelers who take the PHX Sky Train to the 44th Street Station and hail a rideshare from there will also see a discounted rate — 30% off the new fee. 

The city says the increase was overdue after Sky Harbor made the decision to reduce the pick-up fees from a high of $3.25 in 2016 to $2.66 in 2019. There has been no fee for drop-offs.

Sky Harbor does not get any tax revenue and is self-sustaining, so the money raised by the surcharge will help fund the airport’s ground transportation program. The airport will use the money to increase the amount of curb space dedicated to ridesharing companies, install new signage, and improve WiFi in those areas so passengers have a better experience using ridesharing services. 

Airport officials pushed back against criticism of the surcharge by pointing to other airports that charge higher fees but don’t allow Uber and Lyft access to airport terminals, like Sky Harbor does.

Some residents, including Arizonan Chris Pelchat, support the new fees. “If they are using the money for infrastructure, I am all for it. Because we have a growing metropolis,” Pelchat told ABC 15.

Other ridesharing passengers expressed dismay about the surcharges, calling them a tax and a money grab.

Uber and Lyft opposed the surcharges and said they would be reviewing their airport operations to determine how to move forward. The companies, which have used designated areas at the airport since 2016, can avoid the new fees by using remote locations for pick-ups. 

Drivers could pay the price

Top of mind for opponents of the surcharge was the impact it will have on customers and drivers.

Uber and Lyft could choose to absorb some or all of the fees, but given their track record of slashing drivers’ pay over the years, it seems more likely that they’ll pass on the higher surcharges to riders, or more likely, drivers. 

Indeed, the new surcharge has sparked concerns among some drivers who fear losing customers. “Because Lyft is my primary source of income, it’s going to affect me dramatically. Being a single mom of four, and I rely on this income on a daily basis. I drive 7 days a week,” Jeanna Taylor, a Lyft driver, told CBS 5.

Drivers in the Valley already barely scrape by, often working 12 hours a day just to take home $100. Drivers are also contractors, meaning they don’t get access to benefits that full time employees get, such as healthcare, a minimum wage, or unemployment insurance. 

These very issues prompted riders across the country to go on strike earlier this year and led California to pass legislation forcing Uber and Lyft to treat contract workers as employees — a measure that the companies have said they do not intend to comply with. Los Angeles is also considering expanding drivers’ rights by providing them with a minimum wage.

Arizona has gone the other way, making it easier for companies like Lyft and Uber to classify people as independent contractors and avoid providing workers benefits or protections. 

This lack of protections makes it more likely that Phoenix-area drivers will bear the brunt of the new surcharge, rather than Lyft or Uber.

Supporters of the surcharge, including Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D), understand these concerns but say the fee increase is necessary to meet the needs of a growing city and its booming airport.

“Part of being the fastest growing city in the country is the responsibility to invest in our future. If we want to stay at the top of the pack for customer satisfaction and innovation, we have to invest in Sky Harbor,” Gallego told the Arizona Republic.

As the city continues to grow, it’s likely to face many more transportation battles like this one if it expects to meet the needs of the 2 million residents who will call Phoenix home by 2030.