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At Philly airport, Uber and Lyft drivers wait and wait, gambling on a big pay day

Where do ride share drivers waiting when you come off your plane? A look at the staging lot at Philadelphia International Airport and the financial risk drivers are taking there.

Uber and lift drivers among other motorist park their cars at the International Plaza Drive in the Philadelphia International Airport. Monday, September 11, 2018. Uber and Lyft drivers wait at this lot hoping to pick up a ride from passengers departing the airport.
Uber and lift drivers among other motorist park their cars at the International Plaza Drive in the Philadelphia International Airport. Monday, September 11, 2018. Uber and Lyft drivers wait at this lot hoping to pick up a ride from passengers departing the airport.Read moreJose Moreno

Shade was hard to come by in the parking lot, and the wait was long.

Some men lounged in folding camping chairs beneath thin-leafed sumac trees, or lay in their cars with the driver's seat reclined, while in the background airplane engines rumbled. Others walked amid the hundred or so cars in the parking lot, smoking cigarettes, or using a trailer with toilets that tended to back up. One man wiped down his electric blue Nissan Versa with a soft rag.

"Make sure I clean it every day," explained Alvie Nya, 36. "That's my only office so I keep it clean."

They're drivers for Uber or Lyft, and they spend hours waiting at Philadelphia International Airport in hope of one trip that will make the day's labors pay. Unlike cabs, which line up just outside the arrival terminals, ride-share vehicles — at times hundreds of them — are restricted to a parking lot just west of Terminal A. The lot, off International Plaza Drive, opened in July 2016 and has space for 200 vehicles, airport personnel said. The system is similar at airports around the country.

"When I come the first time, I say, 'What's going on here?'" said Abdul Almalky, 52, who has been driving for Uber for about six months.

Driving for Uber and Lyft is intrinsically a gamble. Drivers take to the road each day with no guarantee of their income, balancing the hope of getting a passenger going far enough to make them some real money and the freedom to set their own schedule (something many with children say is invaluable) against the cost of gas and maintenance they pay out of their own pocket.

"If you try and say my goal is $100" a day, Nya said, "sometimes you might make it and sometimes you might not."

Relying on the airport to find fares, though, heightens the stakes.

Unlike elsewhere in the city, where a frantic free market of drivers and passengers link up through the ride-share companies' apps, at the airport, drivers sign on to a digital queue and wait for their turn. A counter on drivers' apps shows how many vehicles are ahead of them. On a recent day, some drivers' screens showed 90 to 100 vehicles before them in the airport queue. The wait for a passenger can take up to two hours.

It's all worth it if a driver is hired for destinations some distance away. Drivers said they've been called to go as far as Long Island or Boston. The closer the destination, the less happy the driver.

"If you wait two hours for one customer and you drop them off in 15 minutes, it's not worth it," Almalky said.

Drivers don't know the destination until after they've picked up a passenger, so they can't be selective.

The worst, they said, is getting hailed by a rider using a ride-share company's less expensive carpool service. Drivers are paid on a mile and minute rate for UberPOOL trips, but drivers say the process of diverting in small ways from the most direct route to collect additional passengers, who each only add 50 cents to the driver's pay, results is lower net income. An UberPOOL is hardly worth a two-hour wait, drivers said.

"The pool rides sometimes can be a ride from hell," said Tom Ali, 58, who has been driving for Uber part-time for two years.

Ali drives an enormous silver Toyota Tundra and hauls 25-pound dumbbells in its bed. Waiting for a ride means time to work on his biceps. He does 50 to 100 reps, typically, he said.

Ali lives in Middletown, Del., and is between jobs as a substance abuse counselor. Uber has done right by him, he said, offering a way to pay the bills. He wouldn't want to do it full-time, though, saying the cost of gas and maintenance would eat up more than a third of his income earned driving.

"It's a beautiful truck, but it's a gas guzzler," he said.

Others, though, rely on ride-share driving as their primary source of income, and that requires strategy. Nya, who has six children at home in Lansdowne and two more, along with two step-children, in his home nation of Liberia, said he starts every day at the airport and waits however long it takes for his first passenger. The possibility of a long ride makes more sense than cruising city streets, burning gas and putting mileage on a car while picking up passengers for what often are short rides, he said.

Another Liberian Nya has befriended at the lot, Vasco Conneh, 33, is more flexible. He looks for areas in the city where there's a surge in demand and will decide whether it's worth waiting at the airport lot.

"I watch the traffic," Conneh said. "I watch the time of day."

Other drivers say they go to the airport lot only after dropping off a customer catching a flight.

The scene in the lot is a combination rest stop, maintenance space, and hangout place.

Aside from the toilets, the lot — owned by the airport but managed by a contracted company — is free of amenities, a barren holding area for men and women waiting to work. There are no vending machines and no shelters. The only way out is a narrow one-lane driveway that gets congested during busy hours, slowing drivers and frustrating travelers who just want to get home after a flight. The airport collects $2.60 from every ride-share trip that drops off at the airport and $3 for every pickup.

A Lyft spokesman said negotiations are underway with the airport to find better accommodations for drivers.

"We've been in ongoing talks with PHL officials regarding traffic flow in and out of the ride share staging lot," said Campbell Matthews, a Lyft spokesperson.

The airport is seeking to relocate the drivers to a lot with better access to the airport, spokeswoman Diane Gerace said. Lyft and Uber expect a new space, with improved restroom facilities, before the end of the year.

Spare as it may be, the staging lot offers something rare for people working a solitary job: camaraderie. They laugh, share stories, gather in small clusters like teenagers meeting outside a high school after classes. Many of the drivers hail from Liberia, and the shared homeland brings them together.

"I come and see friends," said Musa Jarteh, 38, of Darby, who was once a police officer in Liberia. "We talk. We talk a lot of good things about our country."

It's an hour or two that offers familiar faces and stability before a driver's turn in the queue comes around, and he departs to give a stranger a ride to a destination unknown.