Today Luton, Tomorrow the World

(Original edit – and title – of article written for Taxi magazine).

However much we London cab drivers complain about those in power making our job more difficult, things in the provinces things are even tougher. For instance, cab drivers outside London have to pay thousands of pounds each year for permission to rank at train stations. London drivers don’t pay to rank at stations, but it’s useful to keep an eye on what’s happening outside the M25 as who knows what might happen in the future.

I take particular interest in the goings on at Luton Airport because it’s only up the road from my home in Leighton Buzzard, and it’s an airport I use every now and again for my holidays. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to take customers to Luton Airport you’ll also know that you have to pay £3 for the privilege of dropping off. You may have also heard that the airport authorities sold off taxi provision to private hire a couple of years ago.

In September we were flying out to Kefalonia from Luton, so we had the chance to see how things were working. For the outward journey, my wife arranged a fixed price fare in a Central Bedfordshire taxi. No problems there. Mo often takes a taxi to work, and her usual driver gave her a good price. He offered to pick us up when we return, but we declined. You can’t trust flights arriving on time and we didn’t want anyone waiting around for hours. There was no reason not to expect things to run just as smoothly for the return journey. I knew Luton taxis were a bit more expensive, and I knew things had changed at Luton Airport; but I still assumed it would be a simple matter of getting a cab off the rank.

I found what was happening at our local airport both depressing and confusing. The night we arrived back we followed the “Taxi” signs. We couldn’t walk straight on to the rank as there’s an Addison Lee booking office in the way. We tried to walk around it to find another way to the rank when a bloke stepped out of the shadows offering his services. He took an ID out of his pocket. It was a TfL private hire driver’s licence. I explained we were looking for a proper taxi, not private hire. He said there are no taxis at Luton Airport any more (only later did I wonder what a TfL-licenced minicab driver was doing in Bedfordshire. I neglected to inspect the licence plates, but I assume all the licenced cars at the airport would be licenced by Luton. I expect his minicab was in the car park while he touted in the darkness next to the official booking office).

What he told me was almost true though. When I spotted a solitary TX4 mixed in with the Addison Lee minicabs I found a way on to the rank and spoke to the driver. He told me that everyone working the airport is signed up with Addison Lee and we had to go through the booking system.

Knowing there was at least one taxi working the airport I approached staff in the booking hut. I requested a taxi. They said all their vehicles were taxis. I held my lip. After much deliberation between my wife and I, we decided to go with Addison Lee and see what happened. We gave our address to the woman and within seconds we had a slip of paper from a machine. The fare would be £45.25 and we’d pay cash on arrival. It was considerably more than we paid to get to Luton. Fair enough, it was nearly 10pm, but this is the price for a minicab!

On the rank, the solitary TX4 taxi was now number two. I asked the marshal if we could take this vehicle. He was reasonable enough to allow this.

I exchanged a few words with the driver on arrival. My driver was driving back to the airport. He confirmed that Luton Airport have sold off taxi provision to Addison Lee and that the only way taxis can access the airport is signing up with Addison Lee. I’m not sure if drivers have to pay AL a cut, or just subscribe to their circuit. He told me that times are hard for the local taxi drivers (I didn’t want to depress him further by asking if Uber operate in Luton). I guess the only other option is to work Luton town centre and risk the drunks and weirdos.

It’s scandalous that any taxi or private hire driver should be charged for ranking up to serve airport or station customers. As for arriving customers: they follow the Taxi sign, but it’s darn near impossible to actually find a taxi. I only managed it by having some idea of how things work. Too many people use the “Taxi” name in vain. If a “Taxi” is indicated, customers should at least be able to request one. Customers are being directed to a private hire booking hut by misleading signage. People aren’t getting what they think they are getting.

With all the talk about Uber maybe we’ve neglected the threat of our old foe Addison Lee now that the battle has moved thirty miles up the M1? We need to keep our eyes on other transport hubs as I feel this could be the thin end of the wedge.

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