Shuttle Diplomacy

The Blue Sky's the limit for disgruntled SuperShuttle drivers.

They're portraying it as a classic David and Goliath match-up: the little guys who drive people to the airport for a living versus the big corporation they once worked for.

But the former SuperShuttle drivers who broke off from the shuttle giant and started their own service are proving to be just as tenacious as their competitor in the battle for your bucks.

When SuperShuttle International, a Phoenix-based company with operations in seventeen American and Canadian cities, purchased the Denver SuperShuttle franchise from Yellow Transportation in December 2000, its 67 drivers -- all independent contractors who owned their own vans -- anticipated entering a new contract with SuperShuttle International. They even formed their own corporation, Owner/Driver United, so that they'd have "a unified position to negotiate the contract," says O/DU president Daniel Cook. (Because the drivers were independent contractors rather than employees, he explains, they couldn't form a union and instead set up a corporation.)

Driving ambition: Last month, many SuperShuttle drivers left the company and formed a competitor.
Mark A. Manger
Driving ambition: Last month, many SuperShuttle drivers left the company and formed a competitor.

After SuperShuttle managers informed the drivers that the company now wanted them to become franchise owners, the drivers became even more wary. But before they got a chance to negotiate any terms of the deal, the drivers received a letter from SuperShuttle dated July 17, informing them that they'd all be terminated as of August 6 -- because they couldn't sign a franchise agreement without first being released from their old contract.

The timing was a shock. "Our deadline for signing the agreement was eleven days prior to the most important convention ever for the city," says former SuperShuttle driver Howard Davey. The American Society of Association Executives convention, scheduled to begin August 17, would bring hundreds of meeting planners to Denver.

The drivers finally got a look at the franchise agreement on July 26. Under the old contract, they'd turned over 38 percent of their revenue to SuperShuttle, but the company had provided all of the vans' communication equipment. "Under the unit franchise agreement, that percentage remained the same, but their expenses shifted to our side," Cook says. As franchise owners, the drivers claim, they'd not only have to pay for their own radio-dispatch equipment and paging service, but also their own liability and comprehensive insurance.

And the contract was so open-ended, they worried that even more costs could come their way. "There's a SuperShuttle counter at DIA that costs $81,000 a year," Cook points out. "With such ambiguous terms, it was possible that they'd add that cost on to us and any other costs down the road."

Not true, responds Dave Bird, SuperShuttle's senior vice president of operations. "They weren't going to have to take on any equipment costs," he says. "A lot of those people wouldn't talk to us; they just got mad. And so there's still confusion over that document. I'm confident that if they had talked to us about it, they would have seen that it's the same economic package."

The franchise agreement was designed to make the company's business practices more consistent, Bird continues. For example, not all drivers adhere to the same dress code, maintain their vehicles in the same way or follow the same insurance policies. The agreement would have benefited both sides by "clearly stating the expectations the company would have of the drivers and the expectations the drivers would have of the company."

The drivers wanted to negotiate the terms of the franchise agreement as a group, but SuperShuttle refused, Cook says: "They said they wouldn't change one paragraph, one sentence, nothing." (According to Bird, franchise law doesn't allow companies to negotiate with more than one person at a time.)

Sixty-six of SuperShuttle's 67 Denver drivers refused to sign the franchise agreement, and 52 left the company to form a competitor, Blue Sky Shuttle. Three more formed another shuttle company, Flying Eagle Express.

Before either Blue Sky or Flying Eagle could start driving travelers to and from the airport, they needed to get permission from the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, which regulates shuttle services. Because SuperShuttle had suddenly lost almost its entire Denver fleet, drivers with the two new services, as well as those with Wolf Express, a much smaller shuttle company that now wanted to expand its territory -- applied to the PUC for emergency authority, which allows a company to operate for thirty days.

"We had never entertained any idea of forming our own company and competing with SuperShuttle," Cook says. "But the public had no carrier available to them, so we had to submit an emergency application to the PUC."

PUC granted Blue Sky's application. "We started a new shuttle service, leased an office location, leased radios and got our vans hacked up in a matter of days," recalls Blue Sky driver Jim Anaya. In addition to returning their communication equipment to SuperShuttle, the drivers also had to repaint their vans to reflect their new name.

SuperShuttle, meanwhile, scrambled to bring in drivers from out of state so that it wouldn't lose business.

After the ASAE convention passed with few transportation-related glitches, Blue Sky Shuttle applied for, and received, temporary authority from the PUC to provide service for another six months. That's when the competition started getting fierce.

"There's been a concerted effort on the part of SuperShuttle to make sure we don't succeed," Davey says. He claims SuperShuttle has been badmouthing Blue Sky to Denver hotels and that downtown hotels are turning away Blue Sky's vans as a result. "Hotel managers have been coming outside and telling our drivers to get off their property," he continues. "How are we supposed to pick people up at the Adam's Mark? Do we go stand out on Court Place and wave to people? Do we drop people off on the corner and make them walk to the hotel with their luggage?"

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