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Taxi War at Mammoth-Yosemite Airport

July 20, 2012

A battle between five taxi/limo operators reached fever pitch Tuesday afternoon.

No blood was spilled, but if words were blood, there would have been a big, crimson mess in Suite Z of the town offices.
 
It happened at the town’s otherwise tranquil Mobility Commission meeting, which sought to arbitrate a dispute for curbside service rules.
 
At the heart of the battle is Scottie Marzonie and Mammoth Taxi. 
 
Marzonie said he has a fleet of five vehicles and has met 90 percent of every incoming flight for four years. He said he wants a contract to provide taxi service on an exclusive basis.
 
“I believe it is an appropriate time to discuss the need for an airport contract to ensure we continue servicing the airport with consistent ground transportation for all of our year-round commercial airline passengers,” he wrote in a memorandum distributed to the three members of the commission.
 
Ultimately, the commission failed to come up with a plan, even after the operators charged each other with “predatory behavior” and instigating “price wars.”
 
“We’re having growing pains,” said airport manager Brian Picken, who acknowledged that the scene is becoming a Wild West out there.”
 
“It needs more work,” said commission chair Sandy Hogan.
 
“At this point, what with the town’s bankruptcy situation and the threats from Alaska/Horizon, we don’t even know for sure that we will have anything there.
 
“This needs a lot more investigation as to what (the rules) would be. I don’t know that we’re ready.”
 
Marzonie was insistent.
 
“This is not meant to infringe on other businesses,” he said.  “This is about soliciting people who don’t have reservations. I’m the only one doing this.
 
“Who’s at the airport right now?” he asked as the wall clock ticked over to 5:30 p.m. “I am.”
 
In his memorandum, Marzonie went farther.
 
“I would like to have a discussion concerning the pros and cons of a service contract at the airport and pursue some realistic goals and regulations before the current businesses and service deteriorate.”
 
Asked point-blank if he were asking for an “exclusive” contract, Marzonie said he was.
 
That idea didn’t go over well with the other operators:  Ruben Sandoval of Mammoth Cabs; Rolf Knutson of Mammoth Shuttle; Mark Deeds, owner of the soon-to-be-renamed My Mammoth Shuttle; and Lucas Robke, owner of Mammoth All-Weather Service.
 
Nor did it go over well with the commission and airport manager Picken.
 
“We’re going into some new territory here,” Picken said. “I need to know if this is going to be regulated, and how that would work.”
 
The Taxi War is not made up of fat lines of division, though.
 
Knutson, for example, said his business is primarily as an operator taking people to Los Angeles, Reno, or Las Vegas when outgoing flights are cancelled. His service, he said, is by reservation in advance.
 
Robke, a new operator in town, also said his business is by reservation only, either via telephone or email.
 
Deeds also said he was a reservation-based service.
 
Picken said 75 percent of incoming visitors have ground transportation secured, and that the scramble is for the other 25 percent.
 
Although unable to check the transportation services for all seven flights arriving in peak winter season, Picken said there are times when one or more taxi companies are curbside, 
hoping for business from passengers who have not secured transportation.
 
That’s when the tensions start to mount, he said.
 
That’s when negotiations—to put it mildly—begin among the operators, some offering lower prices than the others, and so on.
 
To Picken, it seemed like it was working out, more or less.
 
“Before,” he said, “we were just letting free enterprise reign.”
 
Sandoval, the owner of Mammoth Cabs since 1998, weighed in, saying, “There is a need for all of us there. Maybe it wouldn’t be for the slow times, but people need a choice. America is built on choice.”
 
Robke agreed, saying, “I think having multiple choices is good for the public.”
 
But it was not all about capturing the elusive 25 percent of available passengers.
 
The taxi companies would like to have kiosks at the terminal, but there is no room, and during heavy snows, the curbside area is limited, at the very least.
 
Picken, clearly exasperated, said later, “All we’re trying to do is create a level playing field. At the end of the day, that’s what the town wants to have.”
 
In the end, the commission recommended nothing, other than to study a little bit more on the dispute.
 
With that, Marzonie stormed out of the meeting.
 
“I’m re-structuring right now. As of tomorrow, I’m not going to the airport.”

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