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Runway to Taxi Gets Longer as Cab Shortage Hits Thanksgiving Airport Travelers

Travelers at JFK Airport’s international terminal wait on a taxi line Sunday evening.
Travelers at JFK Airport’s international terminal wait on a taxi line on Sunday.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

New York City’s local airports expect to see the most travelers in two years this week — but flyers should brace for long waits at taxi stands.

An analysis of Taxi & Limousine Commission data by THE CITY shows the number of yellow taxis plunged from 11,302 in September 2019 to 6,218 two years later — a 45% drop.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has repeatedly flagged the shortage of taxis at Kennedy Airport this month, sending out tweets encouraging travelers to “visit the Welcome Center” at any given terminal for help with “alternate transportation options.”

Manini Gupta, who lives in Greenwich Village, said she weighed her choices — including taking the AirTrain to the subway or booking a trip with a for-hire vehicle service like Uber or Lyft — before deciding to wait on a long taxi line Sunday evening at JFK’s Terminal 4 following a flight from Paris.

“This is like the most affordable way to get out of JFK if you’re not going to take the AirTrain,” Gupta, 34, said while waiting on a projected 25-minute line. “So for me, I would prefer to take this if I can, it’s just very annoying.”

No Money at the Airports

The taxi shortage at the airports partly stems from cabbies being able to make more money by picking up street hails in Manhattan and other parts of the city, said Michael Woloz, a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Taxicab Board of Trade, which represents thousands of cab owners.

“It’s just not as financially lucrative right now to do the airports,” Woloz said, citing driver waits at airport taxi holding lots. He also noted that surge pricing by ride-hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft is driving more passengers back to hailing cabs on the streets.

The decrease in the number of taxi trips — which had been in motion for years, in part because of the rise of the app-based companies — has accelerated during the pandemic, TLC data shows. Many in the industry have been struggling to deal with the repercussions of rapidly changing technology.

Earlier this month, the city agreed to a debt-forgiveness deal between the largest group of taxi drivers and the biggest holder of cabbie loans after some drivers went on a 15-day hunger strike.

Aggregated daily average stats reveal that yellow taxis recorded 680,441 average trips through September this year –– roughly a third of the 2.1 million trips for the same period in 2019.

The Port Authority anticipates more than 1.4 million passengers will use Kennedy, LaGuardia or Newark Liberty airports from Wednesday and through Sunday — the most since a record 1.7 million travelers flocked to the airports for the same holiday span in 2019.

COVID sent that figure spiraling downward last year, when the Port Authority estimated that a little more than 500,000 passengers used the airports over the Thanksgiving travel period, about three weeks before the COVID vaccine reached New York.

The impact of the pandemic continues to be felt among taxi drivers, whose number of trips through September fell by more than 68% from 2019, according to TLC data. The fallout has extended to passengers who would rather hail cabs to avoid potential surge pricing among app-based for-vehicle companies.

Woloz said boosting the $52 flat fare between Manhattan and JFK, and implementing one at LaGuardia would help make airport trips more viable for drivers.

“It’s essentially a financial calculation,” Woloz told THE CITY. “If you make the equation more favorable at the airport, it’s not rocket science — you’re going to incentivize and attract more drivers.”

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

The Port Authority estimates that 3.5 million vehicles will use its six bridges and tunnels between Wednesday to Sunday, while the MTA projects more than 5 million vehicles will cross its nine bridges and tunnels from Tuesday to Sunday.

To boost the use of mass transit to and from LaGuardia, the MTA is providing free service on the Q70 LaGuardia Link bus, which connects the airport with the Woodside and Jackson Heights transit hubs in Queens.

There’s no similar free ride for JFK.

Taxi drivers wait to pick up passengers at JFK Airport, Nov. 21, 2021.
Taxi drivers wait to pick up passengers at JFK Airport, Nov. 21, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Those who take their chances on the airport taxi lines could encounter waits that some taxi stand workers told THE CITY can sometimes extend beyond an hour.

After completing a 15-hour journey from Dubai to JFK on Sunday, tourist Alfred Smith said, “That’s just New York,” when he joined the long taxi line outside Terminal 4.

“I’ve been waiting all day, so a little more wait doesn’t bother me,” he told THE CITY. “You go to booking, then you go through security, then you go to drop your bags, then you fly, then you come back and get bags and go through security and now the taxi line.

“It’s all waiting.”

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