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TAXI LIFE AT HEATHROW: Increasing driver fees and low demand, but hope remains for industry recovery


There have been huge changes to the taxi industry recently, either caused by or accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic. One area of upheaval in particular can be found at Heathrow taxi rank. We spoke with Sam Houston, LTDA Senior Rep, who explains the issues in detail and what the future looks like for cab drivers at the airport.


What has Heathrow been like to work at for taxi drivers since COVID restrictions arrived over a year ago?


“Pretty terrible as I’m sure you can imagine; the wait has been over 30 hours at times; drivers are not allowed to leave their cabs for more than an hour so the commitment is massive. Licensed Taxi drivers have made a significant contribution to the continued viability of the aviation industry, by taking compellable journeys from terminals to test centres and quarantine hotels. There were times when not even the buses were operating; Taxi drivers provided a vital service throughout. Winter was particularly difficult as keeping warm is a real issue, and for a long period there was no canteen.”

What are the reasons behind Heathrow’s huge increase to taxi driver rank fees?


“The Taxi Feeder Park operation is governed under a part of Heathrow’s license called ‘Other Regulated Charges’. This means that they can only charge the Trade what it costs to operate the feeder park, plus a set amount for infrastructure investment and a contribution to Heathrow’s overhead. There is a forecast each year for the costs and the number of entries into the TFP, and this results in the price to drivers. Unfortunately in 2020, there were far fewer entries into the park than were forecast and this has resulted in an ‘under-recovery’.


“Heathrow is trying to get some of this money back by charging drivers more; obviously, as business has not recovered at all, we think they should allow a longer time frame for the recovery.”


What has been the drivers’ reactions to the increase in fees?


“Most drivers I’ve spoken to were prepared to pay a little more but thought the £10 previously proposed was far too much. The reduced demand due to the pandemic, and restrictions placed on the industry by government, is not the fault of individual drivers. We engaged with a lot of MPs and other interested groups like the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). At our request, TfL produced a letter explaining that no price increase could be passed on to the customer without public consultation and consideration by the finance committee, and that this would be a lengthy process. We all know that in reality the prospect of increasing the Heathrow ‘extra’ is vanishingly slim, even if we thought it was the right thing to do, which many people don’t.”


In your opinion, taking into account Heathrow’s own financial problems too, what would a fair price be for taxi drivers ranking and using the facilities at LAP?

“The Trade recognises that the aviation industry has taken a huge hit and that some increase is necessary. We had suggested that the shortfall from 2020 be recovered over 5 years instead of 2, to give business a chance to recover. We are relieved that, at the 11th hour, Heathrow accepted the Trade’s counter-proposal of a £7.20 TFP price. Of course, this is still a large increase (100%), but it’s also a substantial reduction on what was originally proposed.”

Will the new fees put off taxi drivers servicing the airport? Do you see Heathrow customers and travellers adversely affected due to the increase?


“Yes, we were really worried that an increase to £10 would have put off drivers coming to the airport, this is why it was a terrible idea to implement such a huge rise all at once – our worry was that service levels would be affected, particularly late at night. Customers coming out after 8pm are often going to local hotels; they’ve come off a flight and have luggage, children; they don’t want to get the bus, they want a quick, cost-effective taxi. These are not the highest value jobs though, so clearly drivers are going to think very carefully before putting on at these times. We felt that Heathrow could end up with more revenue at a £7.20 price than at £10.”


We know taxi drivers have been hit hard with increases, what about private hire drivers? Do they face any changes?


“This is another thing drivers have pointed out: the ‘Authorised Vehicle Area’ (AVA) price is £1 per hour and this is not being increased. That being said, PH drivers have to pick up through the short -stay carparks and the price for those has increased recently.


“Comparing our price to that of PH is not ‘like for like’, as the TFP operation involves more staff and infrastructure and is paid for as a ‘regulated’ charge, as I said earlier. Unfortunately, it is that ‘ORC’ mechanism that allows Heathrow to seek recovery of the 2020 shortfall.


“Despite all this, it’s hard not to be suspicious that Heathrow are favouring Private Hire over Licensed Taxis, particularly their ‘preferred’ operators.”


What other issues are facing taxi drivers working at Heathrow feeder park?


“The continued long wait times are very challenging for drivers. It is hugely stressful to wait so long and not know what job you will get. That is of course a choice and most drivers just get on with it whether it’s a roader or a Chiswick; jobs even out in the end.


“What is more concerning is the level of touting and unfair competition inside the terminals by unscrupulous operators who try to ‘nick’ customers who are looking for a Licensed Taxi. This is by both unlicensed touts and also some Licensed PH. We would like the ‘wayfinding’ and Taxi signage to be more prominent on the terminals so that travellers can clearly and easily see where to get one of London’s famous Black Cabs. You would also think Heathrow should see the benefit of a more proactive security approach to touting, which is a threat to the safety of their customers.“


Fast forward another 12-months and how do you see the Heathrow taxi feeder park working? In your opinion will demand return? Will taxi drivers still service the rank in the same numbers?


“Demand will definitely return, but we’re not going to be at pre-pandemic levels any time soon. My hope is that the TFP will be back to something like it was, but the airport could do a lot more to show us that they actually care about having a decent, regulated Licensed Taxi service. In some ways they have bent over backwards to accommodate and facilitate the PH business model and we would like similar favour to be shown to our operation, so that the long-standing, mutually beneficial relationship between Heathrow airport and London’s Licensed Taxi service can recover and continue to strengthen.”

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