Companies shelve permits, idle cars as coronavirus puts brake on airport tax trips

Local taxi businesses, already suffering from sagging use, have been gutted by the coronavirus pandemic, prompting some permit holders to work with Houston regulators to idle vehicles and cut costs.

The number of taxicab trips to and from Houston’s two airports dropped 95 percent in April compared to February and 97 percent compared to a year ago, according to the city’s airport system and regulatory affairs department. The result was slightly more than 1,000 pickups and drop-offs last month.

“They are waiting more than a day to get a single trip,” said Mike Spears, president of the Greater Houston Transportation Co., the city’s largest taxi firm.

Though already hurting for business in competition with ride-hailing companies, the steep decline in terminal trips occurred as stay-at-home orders and concerns over COVID-19 compounded the problem.

Spears said that GHTC has idled 400 of its taxi permits — more than one-fifth of all permits in Houston — so that supply does not far exceed demand.

Though significantly affected, ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft have seen less of a loss in airport trips. Ride-hailing companies permitted to serve the airport reported 96,498 trips in April, compared to 195,070 logged in February before stay-at-home orders went into effect and air travel plummeted.

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Since the COVID-19 crisis crippled airline travel and kept most Houstonians at home or reducing trips, two local cab companies have shut down, and 60 others have shelved a combined 77 permits, city officials said.

“They have been allowed to suspend their insurance and turn their permits in,” said Kathryn Bruning, an assistant director of Houston’s Administration and Regulatory Affairs Department.

That leaves Houston with 1,730 valid permits spread across 518 companies, most of them independent drivers with a permit for a single vehicle. According to drivers and cab company officials, hundreds of those permits could be idle, but the holders continue to keep them in good standing.

Spurred mostly by the growth of ride-hailing companies, taxi use in Houston has cratered in the past four years. Once the only game in town, cab companies now are far behind Uber, Lyft and other app-based companies in terms of airport trips, with some former cabbies shifting to the app services. Since last July, cabs have logged 220,193 trips, compared to 1.8 million for the ride-hailing services. App-based drivers, some analysts point out, also can adjust to COVID-19 conditions by delivering food and other goods.

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Ride-hailing firms, however, are struggling, too.

Last month, Lyft cut nearly 1,000 positions nationwide, and Uber over the past two weeks has shed a quarter of its global workforce, not including drivers who operate as independent contractors, and closed more than 40 offices around the globe. The office closures did not affect Houston operations, the company said.

Bruning said the voluntary suspension of taxi permits and deferrals of permit fee payments until August will allow some companies to park unused cabs and lower their costs without risking loss of the permit. Bruning said the city will also delay the issuance of any new cab permits until December, as the number of unused permits continues to grow.

Cab companies, however, worry that the fee deferrals and voluntary shelving of permits will not give them enough to rebound.

“We are going to need more than 180 days,” veteran cab company owner Michael Holt said. “Our business might not have returned.”

dug.begley@chron.com


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