LAX

I stood on the airport curb, waving at every black SUV that came my way. One driver finally stopped, pulling up in front of me. But as I strode forward, shoulders hunched with the weight of my travel backpack, he told me no with a barely perceptible shake of his head. An LA woman with perfect highlights yammering into her cell phone strode past me, opened the door and hopped in.

I had been waiting 30 minutes for someone from FlightCar, which promises to do for rental cars what Uber did for taxis, to pick me up and take me to the company’s airport parking lot. Despite our best attempts, the driver and I could not find each other in the crowded departures pickup area in Los Angeles. And this was in the lull before the manic holiday travel season. Something wasn’t right.

As the sharing economy takes over everything from transportation to temporary housing, a handful of startups are seeing whether the model can be applied to cars at the airport. Travelers park their vehicles for free near airports when they’re going on a long trip. In exchange, visitors to the city rent the cars. It’s like airport car rentals meet Lyft, essentially.

FlightCar was the first to try this, opening at SFO in February 2013. FlightCar is co-founded by a pair of ambitious 18-year-old Y-Combinator grads. RelayRides came next, adding airport car sharing at SFO to its original model. And Hubber launched in LAX in June, started by a Hollywood production manager who decided to try his hand at entrepreneurship.

Car sharing isn’t new. Zipcar was one of the earliest entrants into the sharing economy and GetAround was a Disrupt winner 2 1/2 years ago. But FlightCar’s idea was to hone in on the time most of us need rental cars — the airport — and apply some Uber magic to the annoying process of rental car shuttles and check out lines. Of course, that came with new challenges, like navigating airport regulations and figuring out long term parking lot logistics. Given that Avis had just purchased ZipCar, the big car sharing incumbent didn’t look likely to take on the project.

Although car sharing at the airport is somewhat tricky, if the pieces come together  consumer demand could be significant. Because airport car-sharing companies don’t need to spend money buying or maintaining vehicles, customers can rent vehicles for enticingly low prices. Like $10 a day (insurance included).

Startup FlightCar had just launched its LAX branch of car sharing the week prior to my trip. It seemed an ideal time to test it out and see whether the dirt cheap price was worth the potential logistical problems.

When I turned on my phone after the plane landed, a text from FlightCar was waiting for me. It directed me to call the office number. They would send a black car to pick me up at the departures gate and convey me to the parking lot to rent a FlightCar. How convenient, I thought. I didn’t even have to dig through my email to figure out the number to call, it was on my phone from the moment I landed. Baller factor: 10.

When I called, I was told to wait outside by a big number seven and make sure I was on the upper departures level. The black car was on its way. When I headed outside I didn’t find the number seven, but I knew I was on the right level. There was nothing but sky above me. Baller factor: 9.

Five minutes later the driver called me, and I described what I was wearing. Baller factor: 8. I couldn’t believe how smoothly this had all gone. I was looking forward to a comfy-Uberesque black car ride to the parking lot, wrinkling my nose in pity at all the poor folks who had to wait for a crowded shuttle to a rental lot. Paying way more for way less. The fools.

Little did I know I would soon prove to be the foolish one. The driver called again to say he had passed the Southwest departures, but didn’t see me so was circling back around. He told me he was the only black SUV in sight, so to keep an eye out. I wasn’t sure how I missed him since that’s exactly what I had been doing. Baller factor, dropping fast. 

For the next forty minutes I waved at every black SUV I could see. None stopped, except the one fellow who shook his head no and picked up a perfectly coiffed blonde woman. Baller factor: 0.

The driver called back, saying he was coming up on the Southwest section yet again. I told him I was below the very first Southwest sign pumping my arm Jersey Shore style.

“Are you in gold?!” he asked.

“No, black,” I said, disappointing him.

The next hour proceeded like an Abbott and Costello routine. I’d run to the part of the departures gate he would describe seeing, he’d say he didn’t spot me but couldn’t stop the car because of airport regulations. Baller factor: -10 at this point.

Multiple times I went to different airport staff to ask, “This is the upper level, departures, Terminal 1 domestic, right?” They’d confirm yes, and the driver would tell me that’s where he was. Finally I asked him to talk to the airport staff on my phone and he balked. “No, no they don’t really like us, I can’t do that.” I told him to park the car to give me a chance to run up and down the section to find him. “No, they don’t allow us to park.” I can’t even calculate how little of a baller I felt like at this point.

I was running up against the big conflict that’s been facing FlightCar since its inception. What it’s doing is technically against airport regulations. Within a few months of its launch it was under siege from SFO, fending off a lawsuit for not paying a certain cut of revenue the way a livery business would. Given FlightCar had just opened its LAX branch, the driver was understandably a little skittish to wave a red flag to the airport that the company had arrived and had no idea how to pick up passengers.

The driver circled around five or six times when I finally told him I was running downstairs as a last resort. Maybe he was on the lower level and didn’t realize it since he was too afraid to ask for assistance. He called me as he passed for the umpteenth time. We didn’t see each other and I cracked a joke in desperation, “You’re sure you’re at LAX right?”

The phone line went silent. I could hear him take a deep breath. “Carmel, I have some bad news for you. I am very very far away from LAX. I’m at SFO.”

I should’ve thrown my hands up in frustration, cancelled my FlightCar, and vowed never to try a startup in its early days again. Instead I laughed hysterically. At that point I was just grateful there was an answer to this clusterfuck, which indicated that I hadn’t suddenly turned invisible.

It turns out the FlightCar main line had routed my call to the SFO office instead of the LAX one. [UPDATED: FlightCar contacted me after this story ran and sent receipts showing that my original booking was for SFO, not LAX. I misbooked without realizing, which is why the call was routed to SFO. However, that wasn’t communicated to me during the process.]

The driver let them know, and they called me back apologizing profusely and discounting my rental 25 percent. They got in touch with the LA office, and a black car arrived ten minutes later. It was remarkably easy to find. I just stood where they told me to, no waving necessary.

My back hurt from carrying my luggage for an hour and I was running way late for my second story deadline of the day. When I settled into the cushy leather seats of the livery, I decided I would consider using FlightCar again. After all, four days of car rental only cost me $60. And I had expected some bumps in the road given the logistical nightmare of launching an airport ride sharing location.

Then again, I’m a tech reporter with a lot of faith in startups. The average consumer would have likely decided to never use FlightCar again. Said consumer would probably tell all of his or her friends — perhaps anyone in earshot — to avoid the company like a plague, and Facebook and Tweet about it for good measure.

The enticing pitch of a baller black car ride is sufficiently deflated after an hour in the sun lugging baggage.

[Image courtesy tkksummers]