Sunday, January 18, 2009

Public Taxis at Mumbai's Domestic Airport — A Nightmare

On the 9th of January the BPCL, Oil India and IOC workers called off their strike. Only HPCL was functioning — that too as long as their reserves lasted. Cars that ran on petrol/diesel/CNG were left stranded. By late afternoon on the 9th the strike was called off and petrol pumps started providing fuel as and when they received their supply from the oil tankers. The trucker strike was still on.
I had to be at the domestic airport by 2330 that day to receive my wife and 1 year old son. I rely on Mumbai's public transport and for travelling to and from the airport I make use of the yellow-black Fiat taxis. So I was glad the strike had been called off.
But I have to admit that the choice (of using a public taxi to the airport) has always been a reluctant one. The autorickshaw and the taxi drivers are known to ask for more money to take you home (sometimes they do it even after depositing you to the airport!). They know we need them because the airport is not connected to the city's railway station and even if it was, luggage does not allow us to do so. The auto and taxi guys reason that they have to wait in line for up to 8 hours in order to get a passenger.
I find that strange — if I knew I would have wait for 8 hours at the airport, I would rather make that money through multiple rides around the city.
Ever since private cabs like Meru, Mega Cabs and Gold Cabs have entered the scene the regular Mumbai taxis have taken a bit of a beating at the airport, I think. This is because they offer a comfortable ride, air conditioned, a slightly higher rate and — get this — no bickering over the final fare.
Just because there were very few of these private cabbies trickling into the domestic airport (due to the fuel shortage — most run on CNG), the regular taxi drivers were taking their chances. Now, regular taxis in Mumbai are A.C. and non-A.C. — I have never really had the need to use the A.C. one (cool cab). But that night both the types were charging the same rate! They were quoting anything between 400 to 550 Rupees to get me home! Their reasons? "Strike is on. Midnight rate. Noone else will take you. You will end up going round in circles."
The cheek!!
Most of the people waited in a line for the private taxis — including foreigners. That was a painful wait but it was worth it. I would not give a Mumbai cabbie the chance to gloat. There was no consideration — a late night flight, a baby and woman, with 2 large bags. Cut throat highway robbery.
I waited in queue and finally reached home at 2 a.m. How much did I pay? Rs. 323 — that is what the meter displayed and that is what I paid.

For basic citywide travel the public taxis are fine — there are good cabbies and there are bad ones...but the ones at the airport are the worst of the lot. I would never trust any of them — even if they said "by meter" — because when you reach home, they demand more money.
You may have to pay a little more for the private taxi but I think it is worth it.
If ever you find yourself fighting over taxi fare with a Mumbai cabbie — either look for a police constable nearby or order him to drive you to the nearest Police Station to settle the fare. The public taxi guys need to be taught a lesson for harassing citizens. They forget that they will also be at the mercy of the system at the end of the day.

Update: Now the domestic airport in Mumbai has finally opened the counter for pre-paid taxis (regular and A.C. tax – cool cab). But you cannot book and pay for a private AC taxi. (You can do so now. That too before you step out of the airport. But there are times when you have to wait in a long queue. If you are already well-versed with the city's taxi system and the drivers that accompany them, then it is quicker to just step out and book a Cool Cab or regular yellow&black.) 

I also realised that the counter charges a little more than what one would normally pay according to the meter. I guess the airport wants to make a commission at our cost.
I took a cab without waiting in the line inside the airport. The line is long, there is a single counter and when you have spent the whole day hopping airports and watching conveyor belts, waiting is something that requires immense patience. The downside of not waiting in the queue was that at the exit point, I was asked for the pre-paid receipt. After some wrangling, the taxi driver convinced the guy. I guess the guy at the exit was not interested in holding things up. I had to pay hundred more rupees than what I would normally pay for the same distance. Too tired to argue and was late in the night.

These pre-paid taxis will NOT do multiple drops. A lady offered to drop me along the way, I was told by the taxi driver to pay for another taxi ride. This taxi line is the same place where even the private cabbies would stop. This created a lot of friction between the local taxis/AC taxis with the private cabbies. (Now, they have been designated separate areas – city's local cabs and cool cabs on one side while the private taxis pull into the parking stations outside the departure exit as and when they get a call (at their main parking lot) that there has been a booking.

I wanted to know if it is still possible to get a private cabbie. So that you don't have to stand in queue in the pre-paid taxi line and also pay by the meter. Today, I found out how one can do just that. Mega Cabs has a separate hotline for this kind of requirement. Once you reach the domestic airport (I am assuming this works the same way for the international. Try it out and leave a comment), call +91 9004000197/198 and ask for a pickup from the airport. You will be given a cabbie number and will be picked up in about 5-10 minutes. This is what I was told a while back. Will try it out tonight. (If I remember correctly, Mega Cabs has stopped doing this and takes bookings directly within the arrival terminal, at the private prepaid taxi counter. Plus, there are multiple choices today.)

If you have similar experiences and have tried another cabbie service. Do leave a comment so others can know about it too.

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