When San Francisco Airport announced yesterday that it had ironed out an agreement with local car-share start-up RelayRides, optimists thought it might herald a change of heart, or an all-around armistice between the transit institution and the ascendant sharing economy.
No dice, says Matt Dorsey, spokesman for City Attorney Dennis Herrera, noting that the city is moving forward with its lawsuit against RelayRide's competitor, FlightCar.
The difference, according to court documents and press materials from RelayRides, is that one startup has obtained adequate permits for its airport parking, hewed to the airport's rules for shuttling from lots to terminals, and deigned to classify itself as a rental-car service, rather than a software company.
The other startup still portrays itself as the torchbearer for a new economy battling against overzealous regulators.
According to Herrera's complaint, FlightCar flouts airport rules that help reduce traffic congestion and pollution. FlightCar says the rules shouldn't apply. It recently filed a motion challenging the airport's right to regulate businesses that are off airport property.
At this point, FlightCar seems unlikely to prevail in court, and even its co-founder, Rujul Zaparde, expressed hope that the case will settle. But the case still harks to a larger battle between San Francisco's legacy laws and its burgeoning tech sector. And it started long before the phrase "sharing economy" became common coin: Before Herrera came into office, the city was waging lawsuits against such proto share services as Expedia and Hotels.com. Many of those cases are still ongoing.
It's the conventional wisdom that airports are the next battlefront for regulators and "share"-driven startups. But the SFO-RelayRides deal suggests a silver lining. It turns out that when companies play by the rules and don't cloak themselves in jargon, they can actually be amenable to lawmakers. RelayRides' spokesman Steve Webb says that because the company leases parking space from Ace Parking, and because it contracts with Westin Aloft for shuttle service, it's sorted out many of the environmental and fair business concerns that hover around its competitors.
"A lot of people looking from the outside see [the airport] as reactionary to new business models and new technology," Webb says. "But actually they just want to make sure all participants at airport are on even playing field, and that we don't have an advantage over incumbents like Hertz and Enterprise."
Despite being oft-cast as as fusty old disciplinarians and technophobes,airport officials insist that in reality, they embrace innovation. "We're looking at ways to bring these companies into the airport, but not at the expense of fairness and safety," airport spokesman Doug Yakel explains. He predicts that RelayRides will be "the first of many companies" to broker a peace deal with the city's transit hub.
We'll see how they feel when someone disrupts air travel.