United offers smartphone access to Uber, with conditions

Chicago-based United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) is officially embracing the so-called “ridesharing” service Uber, even as some airport officials and others call for sanctions against the company and similar operations.

Smartphone App
Courtesy United Airlines
In an Aug. 20 news release, United announced that it had become “the first airline to offer customers Uber transportation services via its mobile app, further enabling travelers to use the United app for services throughout their entire travel experience.”

What the news release did not address, but which United spokesperson Charles Hobart told TheTravelPro in an e-mail, were the airline’s plans to work within the confines of the continuing controversy around such services.

“The cities that Uber serves have evolving policies and regulations governing transportation services,” Hobart said. “United will only display services approved by the city and transportation authorities in our airport cities.”

While popular as lower-priced alternatives to traditional taxis, political acceptance of such ride-sharing services is hardly universal: Political jurisdictions and other entities, including many airports, have banned them temporarily or are seeking to bar them permanently.

In early 2014, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed an ordinance that would restrict such services. The version passed by the City Council that takes effect in late August toughens the regulations under which such services operate.

In May, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) director John Martin raised “safety concerns” about the services and charged that Uber, Lyft, SideCar and other similar smartphone-dispatched services were operating illegally at SFO in violation of a variety of new state regulations. Subsequently, the California Public Utilities Commission warned such companies that they could be shut down if drivers continue to operate at airports without permission.

Lyft cars with pink mustaches
Photo courtesy Lyft

In June, the Memphis-Shelby Airport Authority announced that Uber and Lyft would not be allowed to pick up passengers from Memphis International Airport (MEM) unless and until they obtain a special permit from the city of Memphis allowing them to operate at the airport.

The news over Uber is not all negative, however.

On August 25, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn vetoed legislation that would have imposed a new, statewide regulatory framework on commercial ridesharing services like Uber.

Earlier that same month, the Commonwealth of Virginia announced that it would grant temporary operating authority to Uber and Lyft, allowing them to operate legally in that jurisdiction after the companies entered into an agreement Virginia’s governor said would help ensure the safety of passengers and bring the companies into compliance with Virginia law.

Accordingly, United's passengers should be able to access Uber through the airline's app when arriving at Reagan National Airport (DCA) and Dulles International Airport (IAD), which are both located in the Commonwealth. At destinations where Uber is not available, they will have to rely on other, more traditional forms of ground transportation to get them to their final destinations.

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