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Uber to be available at Houston airports now

This was part of the original vehicle for hire ordinance overhaul, to be implemented later. “Later” has now arrived.

Uber

Uber and other app-based ride service companies won coveted access to Houston’s airports Wednesday when the City Council quietly passed new regulations, a move likely to increase competition in a market that has long been a stronghold for traditional taxi drivers.

[…]

Mayor Annise Parker attributed the relative quiet to the fact that the months-long debate about ride share companies offered closure on most issues, and the airport regulations came as no surprise.

“We did the heavy lifting when we passed the overall TNC (transportation networking company) regulations,” Parker said.

“If you just walk into an airport and you walk out the front we expect you to get into a taxi,” Parker said. “But if you have an existing relationship with a TNC, whether it’s Uber or Lyft or some other TNC, and you’ve programmed a ride, we want you to be able to get off the plane and get your app and have that vehicle dispatched appropriately. We think we have come up with a good solution.”

That solution is similar to rules established in San Francisco and Nashville, the only other U.S. cities to formally regulate companies like Uber at their airports. Chicago has rules that allow only UberTaxi, a service that connects riders to professional taxi drivers, at its two major airports.

Houston’s rules require the app-based companies to get airport-specific permits and pay the same fees for rides originating from airports that individual taxi drivers pay – $2.75 at Bush Intercontinental and $1.25 at Hobby per departing ride. Before drivers are allowed to register and operate at the airport, the companies would need to be permitted by the city.

There are some other technical aspects to this, but as noted it all passed without a fuss. We tend to either park at the airport or arrange our own rides, so I doubt my family and I would use this much. I did take a cab home from IAH a litte while ago returning from a business trip, so I would be curious to know how the fares would compare. Are you likely to use Uber to or from the airport? Leave a comment and let us know. Hair Balls has more.

Free WiFi finally comes to Houston’s airports

Hallelujah.

Travelers to Houston’s largest airports will now have access to free WiFi.

The service will be available in all terminals at Hobby Airport and in Terminals A and D at Bush Intercontinental for the tens of millions of travelers through the airports each year, the Houston Airport System announced Monday.

The service will roll out in phases at Intercontinental over the next few months to be completed by year’s end.

Airport officials say the new free network will have faster speeds than the previous fee-based system.

“This new system improves speed and reliability, and it also introduces our customers to one of the most robust WiFi networks found in any U.S. airport,” Houston aviation Director Mario Diaz said in a statement.

[…]

In Texas, Hobby and Bush will be among the last major airports to offer mostly free WiFi access. The main commercial airports in Dallas, San Antonio and El Paso all offer complimentary connections.

George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, which tracks the WiFi options at domestic and international airports, said airports always compete with each other for service and traffic and WiFi has become expected among travelers. He said almost everyone will use the WiFi with either a tablet, smartphone or laptop during long layovers or between flights.

“People can connect with different airports, they don’t have to go through Houston,” Hobica said. “Some hotels have gyms that nobody uses, but people will use WiFi. Everybody has a device when they travel. … When airports don’t have free WiFi, people say, ‘Really?’ ”

I’ll just say this: Last year, my family and I flew to Denver for a wedding. The best fare we got included a four-hour layover in Amarillo on the return flight. As you might imagine, there wasn’t much to see or do at the Amarillo airport, but they did have free WiFi, so it was bearable. If the Amarillo airport can have free WiFi, there was no reason on God’s green earth why Houston’s airports couldn’t have it. I’m delighted we finally have it, but geez it took ’em long enough. The HAS press release is here, and the Fly2Houston webpage has more.

Free WiFi finally coming to Houston airports

And there was much rejoicing.

Free WiFi is set to land at Houston’s two main airports by year’s end.

As wireless fidelity service becomes a consumer expectation, the Houston Airport System told the Houston Chronicle it is working to develop a complimentary – as well as fast, reliable and easy to use – network for the 50 million or so travelers who pour through Bush Intercontinental and Hobby airports each year.

WiFi has never been totally free at the city’s commercial airfields, which first started offering pay-only access in 2005 via Sprint.

Currently, fliers get 45 minutes of free access through Boingo Wireless after sitting through a 30-second advertisement. The city has contracted with the Los Angeles-based wireless giant since 2009, when the airport system says demand for free WiFi was not as high.

But fliers say Boingo isn’t always easy to connect to, and it costs $7.95 a day – less under monthly plans – after the complimentary period ends.

Lisa Kent, the airport system’s chief information officer, said airports have “historically” considered WiFi more luxury than necessity, but “that is changing over time.”

Free WiFi, she said, has become one of the most frequent requests from passengers who submit feedback forms.

People “all carry, or most of them carry, smartphones and tablets and laptops, and they expect to be able to access totally free bandwidth from public entities, particularly airports, where they do a lot of staging and waiting for their flights,” said Kent, who oversees the technology department.

The tech team is still working out such details as who should build and maintain the network and what exactly it should look like.

“Ideally, we would like to have a new infrastructure at least beginning to be installed by the holiday season,” Kent said.

You only have to spend some time in an airport that has free WiFi to realize just what you’re missing at Hobby or IAH. I won’t be surprised if the airports develop a tiered offering, with free service that may be slow and/or include ads, and pay service that will be faster and ad-free. Whatever the case, it’ll be better than what we have now, which is basically nothing unless you have the privilege of being in one of the airline executive waiting areas. All I can say is it’s about time.

Council approves IAH/United deal

The deal is done.

The deal calls for United to put in $686 million and the Houston Airport System $288 million. Although the airport system is a city government function, it runs as a separate business and will not use tax money to finance the deal. The system plans to pay its share of costs with a $3-per-passenger fee it started collecting nearly two years ago.

The City Council approved the deal unanimously. The Service Employees International Union, which represents neither city workers nor United employees, criticized the council for approving the contract less than two weeks after the end of negotiations. In a statement released after the vote, SEIU said the agreement “does not guarantee good jobs with benefits.”

Mayor Annise Parker disagreed.

“Capital projects like that are huge engines for job creation,” she said. “In the long term, the work that’s going to be done out there will benefit the entire community in terms of providing good jobs at good wages.”

The full statement from SEIU is beneath the fold. You can see Mayor Parker’s full response to the question about SEIU’s objections in the weekly press conference video; the airport/SEIU question comes up just before the 15 minute mark. The Mayor stated that SEIU has gotten some facts wrong, but did not specify what exactly she was disputing.

It remains the case that it is not easy to find information about this deal. There is some stuff in Council’s agenda, on pages 91-94, but that’s not the sort of thing a person would find on a casual search of the city’s webpage. My expectation for what there should be is something along the line of a section on the front page of the fly2houston.com webpage saying “Learn more about Terminal B redevelopment” or what have you, with an overview of the deal and a FAQ and contact info for more details. I still don’t know why that hasn’t happened.

As it happens, I have received a copy of the relevant docs from SEIU, which you can see here and here, so one hopes that can answer all our questions. Council did support this unanimously, which is a pretty rare event these days, so they saw no obvious red flags. Whatever the case, the deal is done and I hope it is the good deal and job creator the city says it will be. Certainly spending millions on capital projects is a good way to boost the economy, so on that front I’m hopeful. We’ll see how it goes.

UPDATE: I have been informed by the Mayor’s office that a front page link on fly2houston.com will be added on Monday about the deal. I would have preferred that to have happened before the Council vote, but I appreciate that it will be up now.

(more…)

Some questions about the airport deal

The Chron stumped for the Terminal B expansion deal on Friday.

Under the proposal by United, which merged with Continental this year, the Chicago-based airline would spend $686 million to expand and renovate Terminal B. The city is being asked to contribute $288 million via a $3-per-passenger fee for the Houston Airport System and, if needed, the issuance of bonds to fund the city’s share.

City Council tagged the measure on Wednesday, a routine procedure that allows extra time for review and the answering of councilmembers’ questions. It is expected to come up for a vote at next week’s regular council session. We urge its passage.

The proposed work on Terminal B is another in a series of infrastructure improvements that will be necessary for the Houston region to fulfill its enormous economic promise. It is also a competitive necessity for both the Houston hub of the new United, the airlines’ largest, and the airline itself. The city’s self-interest is obvious: Improving the terminal figures to further solidify the deal between Continental and United, a partnership of major significance for Houston and the region. Translation: jobs.

Under the United proposal, the terminal would be expanded, would be easier for passengers to navigate and would feature more amenities than the current Terminal B.

On that last point, the airline would handle the selection of concessionaires and vendors, in exchange for a 10 percent cut of the take, up to $1 million per year.

While I would agree that this approach is superior to the no-bid method that had been used previously, the Chron got this exactly backwards. It’s the city that gets 10% of the concession take, with a cap at $1 million. United gets the rest. That $1 million cap is in place for the entire length of the deal, which needless to say won’t be as much in real terms down the line. That strikes me as something that maybe ought to be reconsidered.

In addition, according to this analysis by the SEIU of the deal, United still does have discretion about participating in Phases 2 and 3, meaning they’re only on the hook for the $97 million they’re committing for Phase 1. They also report that there’s no commitments to contract with Houston-based businesses. I’m taking their word for it on all this, as I have not read the deal myself. This is because I still can’t find it anywhere on the City of Houston or Houston Airport System webpages. Maybe it’s there somewhere, but if so it’s hiding from me. Isn’t that a problem, too? We need some more light on this one. Maybe it’s a fine deal, but I can’t tell from what is and isn’t out there to see.

Chron story on the Terminal B expansion

Here’s the Chron story on that Terminal B expansion at IAH that I mentioned on Sunday. It fills in some blanks.

United Airlines would pay $686 million to expand and renovate Bush Intercontinental Airport’s Terminal B and gain control over its operations — including concessions — under a deal on Wednesday’s City Council agenda.

The city’s share of the project will be $288 million, raised through a $3-per-passenger fee the Houston Airport System has been collecting since November 2009.

The city has the cash to pay the $55 million for the project’s first phase, but may have to issue bonds to pay for subsequent phases, HAS Director Mario Diaz said. Those bonds would be paid off with continuing proceeds from the fee.

[…]

As part of the handover of maintenance and janitorial functions at Terminal B to United, 18 city employees would have to reapply for their current jobs when a United contractors begins doing the work. Diaz said the city will reassign any workers who are not hired by the contractors to other locations in the airport system.

Nonetheless, representatives of the Service Employees International Union, which represents neither United nor airport workers, raised doubts about protections for workers who transition from unionized city jobs to non-union positions for private companies. SEIU leaders also asked that council delay a vote on the contract until the public has had more time to scrutinize it.

The deal is on Council’s agenda for today, and you can be sure it will be tagged. And it needs to be delayed for at least a week, because there are still many issues that have not been fully aired out. The Chron story mentions “a 118-page agreement” that isn’t anywhere to be found on the city’s webpage, meaning that hardly anyone knows what’s in this beast. I do now have a copy of the original presentation about this proposal that was given in June. If you go to page 11, you’ll see that United has a decision point in 2017, whether or not to proceed with Phases 2 and 3 of this project. The page says “If United does not proceed with Phases 2 or 3, these areas remain with [the Houston Airport System]”. That reference has been removed in the updated doc, on which the Monday public meeting was based. What else has changed? Some more time to study this, and at least one more public hearing, would help.

Another point to note, as you can see in the fact sheet that SEIU sent me is that United will wind up with the lowest gate fees of any airline, much lower than what airlines like Southwest pay at Hobby. They’re also going to get 90% of the concessions – the city is letting United handle those details rather than handle the bidding itself. That’s probably wise given the kerfuffle that was caused the last time, but that doesn’t make this the best solution. Again, some time to talk all this through would be a good idea. The impression one gets from this story is that United is hot to get things started. That’s great, but let’s not get too hasty. We’re all going to live with this deal for a long time. Let’s get it right beforehand if we can.

Terminal B expansion on the menu

In late May, the city announced that Terminal B expansion at IAH would go forward.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker, the Houston Airport System (HAS), and United Continental Holdings, Inc. Airlines, reaffirm a commitment to overhaul Terminal B at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) with a revised $1 billion renovation project.

This public-private initiative will help boost the Houston economy by creating local construction jobs during the next seven to 10 years. It will also offer a major upgrade for airport passengers as one of the original terminals at IAH is transformed into a spacious, efficient, eco-friendly facility.

“As the largest hub for the largest airline in the world, Bush Intercontinental is positioned to serve the world as United builds its global network,” said Houston Mayor Annise Parker. “Our airport serves as one of the most important economic engines in Houston and we are committed to expanding the portal to our global business connections.”

During a news conference today, Mayor Parker, airport and airline executives reconfirmed construction plans for the billion dollar redevelopment at IAH United’s largest Hub which serves some 40 million passengers a year.

The agreement to move forward closely mirrors the agreement approved by Houston City Council in 2008. Under the revised plan the airlines will develop the project in phases, as economic conditions improve.

Here’s a presentation about the Terminal B redevelopment lease, which notes that it is on the City Council agenda for Wednesday (see item 40) after a public hearing tomorrow. (That will be a special meeting of the Transportation, Infrastructure and Aviation Committee in Council Chambers at 10 AM, in case you’re curious.) There are some questions about what exactly is in the lease agreement, as things are a little different now than they were in 2008. In particular, the main player is now United Airlines, not Continental. The folks at SEIU sent me this fact sheet about the deal that asks some questions about what is in it. I have not followed this story, and I don’t know anything about it beyond the docs that I’ve linked to in this post. It is a pretty big deal, though, so I wanted to throw this out there. If you know anything more about this, please leave a comment. Thanks.

A short post about airport WiFi

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport now has free WiFi service. Maybe after the Terminal B construction is finally done, IAH can have it, too.

Full fees ahead

The cost of doing business for Harris County keeps going up.

Rising credit card fees have increased that portion of the county government’s banking bill by $1.7 million in two years.

In the year that ended in February, the county paid 36 percent more in fees for customers who pay with plastic to cover their tolls and taxes than it did two years before.

The fees are a tiny portion of the county’s $1.4 billion budget, but the higher bills come during a budget crunch that has resulted in layoffs and a hiring freeze. Just the recent increase in fees would be enough to put 31 new sheriff’s deputies on the streets of Harris County. Rising credit card fees were “a large part” of the reason the Harris County Toll Road Authority stopped allowing people to pay airport parking fees with their EZ Tags earlier this year, said Peter Key, the authority’s director.

The Chron story about the EZ Tag debacle did mention the processing fees, which amounted to $70,000 a month, as a reason. Looking back at what I wrote at the time, I must have assumed it was a flat rate that HCTRA was being charged, but clearly that was not the case.

[County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia] suggested that the county consider going out for bids for banking services again next year in hopes of getting another bank to offer lower fees or to pressure Amegy Bank to give the county a better deal.

Key pointed the finger not at Amegy but at the credit card companies as he spoke after the meeting of his frustration over the rising costs.

“They’re just jacking up the transaction fees,” Key said. “The cost ultimately is going to be born by the merchants,” he said, in this case the Toll Road Authority. The tax office, though, passes on charges of $3.95 per Visa debit card transaction and 2.15 percent for most credit cards.

“What has happened is not Amegy but Mastercard and Visa have exponentially increased their fees,” said Edwin Harrison, director of the county’s financial services division.

Indeed, and it’s something that Kevin Drum has written about a few times. Basically, the credit industry soaks the masses to reward the high end users with things like frequent flyer miles and cash back. I’m a beneficiary of that system, but it’s one I’d be happy to see changed, since it’s a huge transfer of wealth away from folks who can’t afford it. Not really something Harris County can do much about, though. Just keep it in mind the next time you hear someone yammer about the unrestrained growth of government spending. There’s an awful lot of it that’s just not in their control.

Why was EZ Tag airport parking so expensive to operate?

As we know, the program that allows people with EZ Tags in their cars to use them to pay for parking at the airports is going to be shut down because it was losing money. This Chron article that examines the costs of the program raises more questions than it answers.

The Harris County Toll Road Authority has lost more than $3 million in the three years it has permitted its EZ Tag holders to use their passes to pay for airport parking, a Chronicle analysis has found.

[…]

HCTRA officials acknowledged the authority was losing about $80,000 a month to run the airport parking program when it sent the recommendation to Commissioners Court last month.

[…]

There are 1.7 million EZ Tag holders. Spokesman Eric Hanson said the authority projected about 35 percent of those would use the tags at the airports.

Instead, about 80,000 motorists used it at least once in the last year, a little under 5 percent.

Hanson said the authority came up with its projection after sending crews to the airport garages to see how many vehicles there had EZ Tags.

[…]

In both Orlando and Dallas, the airports paid for installation and operation of the equipment that reads the passes. Under its agreement with the city of Houston, which runs the airports, the Toll Road Authority picked up the tab for the EZ Tag system at the garages.

Hanson also noted that the city-run garages where EZ Tags can be used are not the only, or the cheapest, places to park at the airports.

The chief operating cost of the program was bank fees. Amegy Bank was charging the authority $70,000 a month in bank fees for airport transactions because each EZ Tag passing through a garage gate resulted in a charge for using the credit card linked to the motorist’s EZ Tag account. The authority, not the motorists, pays those charges.

According to the previous story, the monthly cost for running this program was $170,000. What was the other $100,000 a month being spent on? I guess maybe some of that was the amortized cost of the equipment, but if so that should be declining over time. I still don’t understand how this could have been so expensive to operate. I mean, surely the EZ Tag readers on the toll roads aren’t comparably expensive, are they?

The flat fee that was being charged for credit card processing was obviously a problem as well, given that it represented nearly 80% of the $90,000 in revenue this was generating each month. Maybe that made sense if you believed the usage projections, but in retrospect a per-transaction fee would have worked better for HCTRA.

And why did those projections fall so far short of the mark? Did they happen to count EZ Tags in the lots at a time when there was a freakishly large number of them, or was it the case that a lot of those folks exited the lots without using their EZ Tags to pay for their parking, perhaps because they didn’t realize it was an option? Was there something they could have done to capture more revenue, or was their model just hopelessly flawed? The two Dallas airports had nearly six times as many EZ Tag-paying customers in 2008 as HCTRA had in the part year. How is this possible?

Again, I don’t get it. This seems like it should have been a no-brainer, and yet it was a complete bust. It deserves more scrutiny to understand why.

No more EZ Tag parking at the airport

As you probably knew, if you had an EZ Tag in your car you could use it to pay for parking at IAH. But not any more, as Commissioners Court will shut it down.

The program provides special lines at Houston’s municipal airports for people with the tags that pay for their use of county toll roads. The parking fees are billed to the motorist’s account, and the toll road authority gets 7.75 percent of the proceeds, airport system spokeswoman Marlene McClinton said.

Use of the service has not measured up to expectations, officials said.

Fewer than half of the more than 150,000 EZ Tag customers who opted in to the program have used it, said LaWanda Howse, the toll road authority’s manager of special projects. That has translated to revenues of about $90,000 per month, she said, while costs of the program are about $170,000 per month.

I know I’ve used this before, though it’s been awhile since we usually employ the traditional “get someone to drop you off and pick you up” method of airport transportation, but I didn’t realize you had to opt in for this. I don’t quite get that – why wouldn’t you just be able to use it if you had the tag? You can use your EZ Tag on other toll roads across the state, after all. I also don’t quite understand how this program could be so exorbitantly expensive. What the heck was that $170K per month paying for? I would have thought a program like this would have been a no-brainer, yet somehow it wasn’t. What am I missing here?