Uber driver Paul Linnee steered his Volkswagen into Terminal 1 at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport last month to pick up passengers for the ride-sharing service — as he’s done hundreds of times in the past.
But this time, a Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) employee approached Linnee and said a 10-inch magnetic sign on the side of his car bearing his name and the Uber logo violated airport ride-sharing rules, which were enacted in 2017. Take it down or don’t serve the airport, he was told.
Linnee, who has provided more than 11,000 rides as an Uber and Lyft driver since 2014, called the edict “ridiculous” and challenged it with the commission. His appeal was denied.
The 73-year-old retired police officer from Bloomington says the sign helps passengers identify his vehicle in crowded loading zones and parking lots, and it adds an extra layer of security for people who may hop into the wrong car thinking it’s the Uber they ordered on their smartphone.
But the MAC disagrees, noting Linnee’s sign required prior approval from the airport director. The commission’s primary concern is that, “apart from being a prohibited advertisement, if other drivers followed suit, it would create a significant safety issue,” spokesman Patrick Hogan said in an e-mail.
Linnee’s dispute with the MAC surfaced just months after a 21-year-old college student was stabbed to death in South Carolina after she climbed into a car thinking it was the Uber she had summoned. While San Francisco-based Uber provides an average 14 million rides a day worldwide largely without incident, the murder of Samantha Josephson reinforced the need for passengers to take extra care to ensure their safety when using ride-sharing services.
On its website, Uber advises passengers to match the license plate, car make and model of their ride as well as the photo of their driver with information provided during booking. In Linnee’s case, they could also match the name of their driver with the placard on his car.
“Having a sign on my car makes it pretty obvious that I’m the right guy,” Linnee said. He concedes the system isn’t foolproof, but he notes the sign can also help passengers spot his car in a crowd.
“If it’s 1:15 a.m. in the Cowboy Jack’s parking lot in Bloomington and there are six other [ride-sharing] cars that look just like mine circling around, people will know who I am when they see the sign,” he said. In addition, two zones set aside for ride-sharing pickups at the airport’s Terminal 1 can get rather chaotic during busy times.
But the MAC’s Hogan says, “Names are not unique identifiers. Many drivers have the same name.” He said more than 440 drivers registered with the MAC for ride-sharing services have the first name Mohamed, and there are more than 250 Michaels and Ahmeds.
“If customers started looking for names on cars rather than faces and license plates, the result would no doubt be many people getting into the wrong vehicle,” Hogan said. “That is not an acceptable safety risk.”
But Linnee said he has been using some version of the sign for the past three years, including many trips to the airport without incident.
Uber did not respond to a request for comment.
The MAC adopted new regulations for ride-sharing two years ago following months of discussion and several emotional public hearings that pitted Uber and Lyft drivers against traditional taxi firms. The 33-page policy doesn’t preclude ride-sharing vehicles from bearing “magnetic or other removable distinctive signage” so long as it’s not commercial advertising.
In Linnee’s case, the MAC considers his placard an ad.
Linnee disagrees — but he says his experience with the MAC hasn’t soured him on being an Uber driver. He said he likes “meeting a lot of different people and seeing new parts of town.”
Plus, he added, “I’m picking up a few hundred dollars a week, and I avoid watching cable news and soap operas.”