The boy who cried wolf: San Francisco is (still) suing FlightCar for preposterous reasons
Today, FlightCar filed its latest appeal in its ongoing lawsuit with the City of San Francisco. The car sharing company, which lets people park for free near SFO in exchange for letting visitors "rent" their car while they're gone, was hoping to get the whole suit dismissed.
"[W]e don't have relevance to SF County so the city of San Francisco should have no right to regulate us," CEO Rujul Zaparde explained on the phone. Unfortunately, the judge did not agree, and the lawsuit trudges on with its first hearing likely to take place in summer.
This is a pivotal suit for ridesharing in general, one that tests the bounds of city control for mandating company fees when their drivers enter property like the airport. It's one of the many battlegrounds where car or ride sharing startups believe their business models are different enough to warrant exception from the fees paid by taxi or rental car companies.
Airport officials disagree and have reportedly arrested both Lyft and UberX drivers transporting travelers to and from SFO and charged them with trespassing. The ridesharing companies dispute that fact and say they have no record of such arrests. Furthermore, the airport hit six ridesharing companies, including FlightCar, with cease-and-desist letters back in April.
In the case of FlightCar, SFO is frustrated that it doesn't get to collect on the 10 percent of revenue and $20 flat fee per rental that it takes from traditional rental companies like Avis and Herz. The City of San Francisco got involved and filed a lawsuit against FlightCar back in May, much to the shock of FlightCar's founders. "The lawsuit came out of the blue," Zaparde says. "A week before we had met with some of the folks at the airport. We thought we would continue to have a dialogue but they weren't open to that."
FlightCar's argument for why it shouldn't have to pay that fee is valid.
- It isn't paying the airport for parking and its lots is nowhere near airport property or jurisdiction. In fact, its lot isn't even in the same county.
- FlightCar does not own the black cars that transport FlightCar customers too and from the airport. Instead, it partners with black car companies, which themselves are legal and regulated and pay fees to the airport every time they pick up travelers.
- Those surcharges get passed down to FlightCar, and the company estimates it pays SFO $15 per rental through the black car companies.
- FlightCar employees don't step foot in airport territory.
It (the airport sponsor) will maintain a fee and rental structure for the facilities and services at the airport which will make the airport as self-sustaining as possible under the circumstances existing at the particular airport, taking into account such factors as the volume of traffic and economy of collection.
It's frustrating on another level too. When taxi commissions, airports, and government branches deliberately obstruct new sharing economy business, the public's trust in them erodes.
It becomes easy for people to write them off, saying, "Of course these groups don't want car or ridesharing. They're just afraid of losing money or pissing off powerful interest groups."
Then, when these organizations call out startups for truly legitimate concerns, like bad background check procedures that put criminals on the road, everyone ignores them.
It's the classic case of the boy who cried wolf.
The FlightCar founders are young, having conceived of the company idea at the ripe old age of 18. They have the backing of Airbnb's Brian Chesky and SoftBank, among others, and the pedigree stamp of Y-Combinator. But FlightCar is their first foray into big world of business. They're learning a lot -- and it's not all peaches and roses.
As Zaparde says, "It's amazing to see at what lengths parties who benefit from the status quo will go to shut you down."