Miami International Strives to Turn Cabbies into Ambassadors

As published in Airport Improvement Magazine — May-June 2014

When Emilio T. González, Ph.D., assumed duties as director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department last spring, he was greeted with an inordinate amount of complaints about ground transportation at Miami International Airport (MIA).

“I was getting a lot of hate mail on our cab issue,” González specifies. “I realized that it is a very important issue for an airport to provide quality ground transportation – especially in a community like ours, which depends so much on visitors, business travelers and conventions.”

The newly appointed chief of the largest U.S. gateway for Latin America and the Caribbean was also struck with another key realization: “Travelers don’t see airports in parts. To them, it is very transparent. If there is a cab problem, it is the airport’s fault. If there is an Immigration problem, it is the airport’s fault. If there is a baggage problem, it is the airport’s fault.”

Project: Cab Standards Program
Location: Miami Int’l Airport
New Requirements: Vehicles must be no more than 6 years old (8 for wheelchair-accessible units); drivers must follow dress code, open doors for passengers & load/unload luggage; cabs must include equipment
to pay tolls electronically, process credit card payments & facilitate dispatching with GPS
Name of Initiative: Ambassador Cabs Program
Ordinance Control: Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners
Primary Compliance Deadline: Jan. 29, 2015
GPS Equipment Deadline: Jan. 29, 2016
Other Details: Program also covers cabs serving PortMiami; upgrades to airport infrastructure will allow for future interoperability between the 2 currently separate systems
Infrastructure Upgrade Partners:TransCore; GateKeeper Systems
Cost of Upgrades: $1.6 million

González promptly put his extensive policy experience to work by going straight to the top – Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez – for help fixing MIA’s landside transportation issues. Prior to assuming the top operational post at one of the busiest international airports in the world (passengers and freight), González spent most of his career in foreign affairs and international security policy issues, including director-level positions at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and National Security Council.

Together, González and Mayor Gimenez jointly developed a program that establishes standards for both the cabs and drivers that serve Miami’s main international airport and seaport. The strategy, now known as the Ambassador Cabs Program, was adopted by the Miami-Dade Board of County Commissioners with near-unanimous support early this year.

Back to Basics

“The key is that there will be a consistency in the standards,” González explains. “When somebody gets in a cab, they will know what to expect.”

Under the new program, most vehicles servicing the airport must be no older than six years old; wheelchair-accessible vehicles can be up to eight years old. In addition, Ambassador Cab drivers must meet dress code standards, open doors for passengers and load/unload their luggage.

“The things that you would normally think are basics in a cab industry are not here,” González relates. “It was a wonderful case of doing what is obvious anywhere else.”

Neither González nor Gimenez mince words about the pressing need for improvements to MIA’s cab service. In a press release issued earlier this year, Mayor Gimenez referred to the mandated changes as “common-sense reform” and González called the new standards a “long-overdue leap into the 21st century for our local taxicab industry.”

Cabs operating at MIA and PortMiami have until January 29, 2015, – one year since the ordinance was enacted – to comply with new vehicle and driver requirements.

González has high expectations for the new program: “It’s a big win for the millions of visitors who spend time and money in our community each year, as well as for the many residents who regularly travel through our global gateway.”

Technological Boost

In addition to “the basics,” the new program also mandates requisite technology. By July 29 this year, cabs must include SunPass transponders for electronic toll collection. And by late next January, they must have credit card processing equipment, digital security camera systems and lights that indicate when the cab is available. The cab companies were given two full years to install systems that use global positioning technology to facilitate dispatching.

In late March, the aviation department had not yet issued new RFPs as a result of the Ambassador Cab program. If the department decides to change to a closed system for vehicle access and management on the airport, new contracts may be required, explains González. Currently, though, new technology requirements for the vehicles will be negotiated between the cab owners and their chosen providers.

Meanwhile, MIA and its strategic partners are preparing to launch technology infrastructure updates to the airport’s existing system in May. A multi-phase, $1.6 million contract has TransCore deploying commercial vehicle management software from GateKeeper Systems for use with existing equipment. Next, the team plans to replace reader equipment.

“Miami has an older commercial vehicle management system that has been around for a long time, and the infrastructure needed to be upgraded,” explains Forrest Swonsen, director of Airport Systems and Services for TransCore. “We are upgrading the infrastructure that was over 15 years old; so when the system is completed, we will be able to read all of the older transponders they have at the airport and all the newer, faster SunPass transponders.”

Future Links?

GateKeeper Systems President Lynn Richardson describes the additional technology requirements for cabs as a “work-in-progress” that has generated more discussions than decisions so far. That said, he’s also confident that his company’s software will produce similar results at the airport that it has produced at PortMiami for the last four years.

“From a software standpoint, it’s identically the same system; and the seaport has identical objectives of trying to manage the flow of commercial vehicles in and out,” he comments. Commercial vehicles such as limousines, taxis, shuttles and charter buses will all be tagged and registered in both systems, he adds.

Currently, the airport and seaport use the same tags and software but operate their respective systems separately, Richardson explains. MIA’s new infrastructure will allow the vehicle management systems at MIA and PortMiami to be linked.

“We installed (the systems) with the idea that there would be some future interoperability between the two, because they share so many ground transportation providers,” Swonsen explains. Well over 75% of cruise passengers who depart from PortMiami arrive via MIA, he notes.

Although the airport has not yet formalized the final details, it is exploring the functionality of the dispatch module and software as a whole to figure out how to execute day-to-day operations, Richardson adds.

With the main compliance deadline in late January 2015, González expects to begin seeing newer, more modern vehicles replace old, outdated cabs at the beginning of this summer. To further incentivize change, the airport is offering front-of-the-line queuing privileges to newer model and alternative fuel vehicles.

“Taxicabs provide a critical first impression,” says González. “If we want to be considered a world-class community, we need to offer world-class customer service all the way from touchdown to takeoff.”