No taxis, $120 Ubers: The unfriendly welcome for trans-Tasman travellers at Auckland Airport

The bubble is open, but international travel still isn't what it used to be.
The bubble is open, but international travel still isn't what it used to be. Photo credit: Newshub

The trans-Tasman bubble may have made it easier for people to travel between Australia and New Zealand, but those arriving at Auckland Airport may face an expensive journey to get anywhere else once they land on our shores.

Passengers aboard late-night flights from Australia have found themselves forced to wait for more than an hour to get picked up, or pay expensive Uber surge prices in order to get home in the early hours of the morning.

Newshub Travel experienced this first-hand on Monday evening, with subsequent enquiries prompting an apology from the airport.

The last arrival from Sydney got in shortly before midnight and a queue of around 20 people began to wait at Auckland Airport's taxi rank - which was empty.

At least another 15 people were standing around using their phones trying to hail a driver from a ridesharing app.

DiDi and Ola had no cars available, while Uber was quoting $126.03 to get to the central Auckland suburb of Eden Terrace, with a 10 percent promotional discount bringing the total down to $106.03.

Uber quote of $126.03 minus the promotional discount.
Uber quote of $126.03 minus the promotional discount. Photo credit: Newshub

One passenger told Newshub their Uber driver had cancelled their booking after it was made, meaning they had to rebook minutes later when prices had increased further.

A spokesperson for Uber said in situations of increased demand, riders are given an upfront price before they request their ride, theoretically giving them the freedom to decide if they want to use the platform.

"Uber provides riders certainty about the cost of their rides on our platform thanks to Upfront Pricing. As the name suggests, riders are able to see the total cost of a trip from their location to a destination before booking a ride," the spokesperson said.

The manager of transport at Auckland Airport, Troy Lineen, said there's an agreement with taxi operators licensed to use the on-demand taxi stand that stipulates they must offer a fixed price fare to the CBD, and that that must be on display.

They also ask that taxi operators maintain a presence on the stand during the international terminal's operating hours. 

"If the on-demand stand is empty, our forecourt attendants will contact the taxi company dispatchers and request vehicles be sent to the airport," Lineen said.

However, the last flights from Australia can arrive after the forecourt attendants have finished their shift.

"Our forecourt attendants finish their shift at midnight, but we have asked that before they leave for the evening to make sure taxis are available for passengers arriving after midnight, and to put in a call to the taxi companies if the on-demand rank is empty."

Lineen wouldn't say how long arrivals had to wait before they got a ride home, but acknowledged there was a delay on Monday evening. 

"On this occasion, the forecourt attendants stayed until 1:20am on Tuesday morning, rather than the rostered 12am finish, in order to get taxis for those passengers arriving into Auckland Airport on those late night Australian flights," he said.

Auckland Airport said it apologises to anyone who has experienced a long wait, adding it will remind on-demand taxi operators that the start of quarantine-free travel from Australia needs to be factored into their airport operations.

But the taxi company warns travellers to temper their expectations.

Bob Wilkinson from Auckland Co-op Taxis, one of the three owners of the Blue Bubble Alliance, told Newshub there should always be enough taxis to meet demand - but since the opening of the travel bubble, taxi demand has been "very modest".

Wilkinson said there would have been enough taxis to meet demand had Uber not gone into surge price mode.

"There will always be times and locations where taxis are in short supply due to unforeseen circumstances. Rideshare companies gouging passengers with a 100 percent-plus increase could be described as an unforeseen circumstance," he said.

"Uber is often described as a disrupter to the taxi industry and it should be remembered that it is not just the taxi drivers who can be disrupted."

Wilkinson wouldn't say how many taxis were on duty at the time, but said other factors which would have affected their availability included a big weekend in Auckland like the 50,000-strong crowd at Six60's concert. Additionally, it was a holiday weekend, and Monday is typically a slow day for taxis.

"To sit waiting for hours hoping for the competition to price surge is not economically viable," he said.

Wilkinson said the way to avoid the situation is as simple as pre-booking a taxi before you arrive.

"Auckland Co-op Taxis operates a call centre and can accept bookings weeks in advance of when the taxi is required."

John Hart, Executive Director of the NZ Taxi Federation, said he noticed a trend around the country for taxi operators to move away from working during the less sociable hours and leaving them "to others".

"Until 2017, when the law was changed to suit the Uber model, taxi operators were required to provide a 24/7 service and that meant being available during the hours when it was not  viable to do so. Taxi operators now have the choice and some are choosing not to come out at times when there's not much business around," Hart told Newshub.

"I would suggest it's a little unreasonable to expect taxis to be waiting just in case your Uber ride is too expensive or doesn't turn up... business doesn't work like that."

So, much like air travel itself in today's COVID-19 world, preparation appears to be a key part of making sure your Tasman bubble trip goes smoothly - not just in the air and at the border, but on the road home too.