Wellington Airport strikes deal with Uber, creating pick-up area and charging fees

The international passenger terminal at Wellington Airport. On Tuesday the company, majority owned by Infratil, became ...
Ross Giblin/Fairfax Media

The international passenger terminal at Wellington Airport. On Tuesday the company, majority owned by Infratil, became the first airport in New Zealand to reach a deal to allow Uber to operate on its property.

Wellington has become the first airport in New Zealand to strike a deal with ride-sharing company Uber.

From Friday Uber's drivers will be able to pick up and drop off riders, freed from the lingering threat of being trespassed.

Users can immediately begin being dropped off in the public drop-off zone outside the airport check-in area. A dedicated pick-up zone for Uber drivers will be opened on the ground floor on September 1.

Ride sharing app Uber allows passengers to order and pay for rides using their mobile phones. It has become a by-word ...
Supplied

Ride sharing app Uber allows passengers to order and pay for rides using their mobile phones. It has become a by-word for digital disruption of major industries.

The deal is hardly unvarnished good news for users of the service, who will effectively now face a price rise for rides which start or end at the airport.

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Uber will collect a $3 fee for all pick-ups and drop-offs on airport property on behalf of the airport company, starting on Friday.

When Uber launched in Christchurch, taxi drivers staged a protest outside the offices of MP Nicky Wagner.
David Walker/FAIRFAX MEDIA

When Uber launched in Christchurch, taxi drivers staged a protest outside the offices of MP Nicky Wagner.

For some, the deal may seem confusing, as users of the technology company, which has become a by-word for digital disruption, clearly already use the service at the airport.

But at airports in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch - the only cities in which Uber operates in New Zealand - the practice is officially forbidden.

Passengers are often forced to walk off airport property, or at least to parts of the site which are less closely monitored, to be picked up, otherwise the drivers risk fines or being barred from the property.

Airports have blamed transport regulations for the impasse, although opposition from taxi companies - which are understood to collectively pay millions of dollars for defined ranks near terminal exits - has also featured in the argument.

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In a statement, Wellington Airport and Uber said the agreement followed the passing of the Land Transport Amendment Bill earlier in August, which recognises and effectively legitimises elements of ride-sharing services for the first time.

Wellington Airport spokesman Greg Thomas said the deal was the first of its kind in New Zealand.

"We're pleased to reach agreement with Uber and be the first airport to add ride-sharing to our ground transport services," Thomas said.

"This is another example of how we are making transport to and from the airport easy and convenient for travellers.

Uber has long claimed that it was willing to pay to use airport property, however its previous refusal to adhere to some transport regulations has meant airports risked breaching the duty of care the companies legally owed passengers.

The refusal of the San Francisco headquartered technology company to fall into line strained relations with the Government.

At one point, Transport Minister Simon Bridges raised the prospect that the company could effectively be banned if it continued to refuse to give assurances around passenger safety.

Uber has hailed the deal with Wellington.

"This is a win for consumer choice, tourism and the Wellington travelling public," Uber New Zealand general manager Richard Menzies said.

The deal sparked an angry reaction from one of New Zealand's leading taxi companies.

Bob Wilkinson, chief executive of Blue Bubble Taxis (which operates as Combined Taxis in Wellington) said he was "outraged" by the news.

"They [Wellington Airport] are prepared to put a company into the airport that isn't even yet legal," Wilkinson said, referring to Uber's past flouting of NZTA regulations.

Wellington's deal was likely to lead to similar deals in Auckland and Christchurch, Wilkinson said.

"Airports are mainly concerned about providing returns for their shareholders, and if this is a potential source of revenue, they must look at it.

"Wellington's broken rank, decided to go for it, the other two will probably follow suit."

The deal marks a considerable change in Uber's relationship with Wellington Airport, which is jointly owned by Infratil and the Wellington City Council.

In early 2016 airport chief executive Steve Sanderson said Uber drivers who repeatedly picked up passengers at the airport could be trespassed, even as he claimed to be close to reaching a deal to allow Uber to operate at the airport.

This would mean a driver would need the express permission of Sanderson to enter airport property, even as a passenger. The threat was never exercised.

In mid-2016 security guards were employed to monitor for Uber drivers using the airport, leading to claims of heavy-handed treatment.

Passengers wanting to use the service tended to request rides from the nearby Z Energy station which, while still being on airport property, attracted less attention.

By April 2017, Wellington Airport had blocked Uber from its free wifi network, making it harder for international passengers to access the service on arrival in the capital.

But in recent weeks Uber drivers have indicated the airport had dropped its monitoring and they were routinely picking up and dropping off passengers outside the entrance to the airport terminal.

Thomas said on Tuesday that Uber has been removed from the list of apps blocked from its network "a while ago".

 - Stuff

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