Uber and Lyft, those taxi-like services that summon rides in an instant, are revolutionizing personal transportation and freaking out cab companies. But in San Diego, one place is a no-go zone, at least in theory: With some exceptions, these services aren’t supposed to pick up people at Lindbergh Field.

That’s what the rules say, anyway. The reality’s been a bit different thanks to a black market that’s spawned a cat-and-mouse game between rule-averse drivers and airport authorities. As you ponder transportation to and from the airport this holiday season, here are four things to know about Uber, Lyft and Lindbergh Field.

A Ride to the Airport Is Legal

The popularity of the Uber and Lyft services has grown because they generally offer cheaper, more convenient and more comfortable rides than taxis. The good news: It’s fine to use Uber, Lyft or another smartphone-based service (such as Sidecar) to get a ride to the airport. “Anyone can drop off,” said airport spokeswoman Rebecca Bloomfield.

The restrictions only apply to for-pay services that pick up people at the airport. “Because we have limited curb front, we restrict the number of commercial providers permitted to pick up passengers at the airport to avoid chaos,” Bloomfield said. Airport regulations limit the number of taxi-type vehicles allowed per day to 180.

Some Uber Cars Can Legally Pick You Up

Uber has partnerships with cab companies that have permits allowing them to pick up people at the airport, said Christopher Ballard, general manager of Uber San Diego. This means people at the airport can request the Uber services known as uberX, uberXL, UberBLACK and UberSUV, Ballard said, and get picked up. UberX is the cheapest.

Uber drivers without airport permits are not supposed to pick up passengers at the airport. In fact, Ballard said, the Uber system has always had a “blackout geofence” around the airport built within the location-tracking technology that links riders with drivers. This means “any vehicle that did not hold the proper licenses and permits to conduct pickups at the airport was unable to receive rider requests from within the airport.”

“The rules and regulations have been very clearly communicated to our partners and riders, and those found to be disregarding those regulations can be subject to deactivation from the platform,” Ballard said.

Black Market Exists Despite Rules

Uber has its “geofence,” and a Lyft spokeswoman said that service “is not currently operating at San Diego International Airport” and it is not possible to ask for pickups from there. But Lyft has been operating at the airport in recent months. I’ve twice gotten rides home from the airport via Lyft, and last week, Lyft drivers got a message warning them to avoid the airport.

Clearly, a black market exists, and a cat-and-mouse game has developed with ride-share service drivers working to avoid being caught. Black-market Lyft drivers at the airport, for example, don’t put those ubiquitous giant pink mustaches on their cars when they pick people up, and they may ask riders to sit in the front seat, not the back, so they appear to be picking up friends or relatives instead of strangers.

Bloomfield said 210 citations have been issued as of mid-December, according to a preliminary count. The number was at 67 in June, according to a U-T San Diego report, suggesting that the number of citations per month has gone up in the second half of the year. Violators of the airport’s rules regarding pick-ups could face fines of up to $1,000, jail term of up to six months and impounding of their vehicle. Or not. “Our licensed and permitted partners have received improperly issued citations, and we support them in contesting those,” said Uber’s Ballard.

Passengers in illegal ride-service cars aren’t subject to any penalties, Bloomfield said.

Talk of New Rules Is Dragging On

Back in June, U-T San Diego reported that a deal could be in place by the fall to allow Uber & Co. to pick up passengers at the airport. It’s now almost 2015, and no such deal is in place.

Uber’s Ballard said talks with the airport have been under way since April, and he expects to reach an agreement early in 2015. The airport’s Bloomfield said an agreement should be before the airport’s board within the first three months of the year.

“Demand for additional options is large and growing,” he said. “Every week, hundreds of individual requests are left unfulfilled at the airport due to the limited number of available vehicles.”

Randy Dotinga

Randy Dotinga is a freelance contributor to Voice of San Diego. Please contact him directly at randydotinga@gmail.com...

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