Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

17 June 2018

Rainbows

Last season (2017), we dryers of cherries did not do much work.  There was virtually no rain.  Helicopter operators who skimped on their "standby" charges and figured they'd make the revenue up in flight time were left hurting.  Meh, such is business life.  The guy I work for is shrewd.  Even on no-fly or low-fly years we still make money.  (Of course, it goes without saying that we make more if we fly.)

This year, we've already had more rain and have done more flying in the first couple of days of the contracts than we did all of last year!  It's been weird, too.  The rain has been coming from the north, which is kind of unusual.  Most of the time it comes from the west across the Cascade Mountains or up from the south.  Whatever...we'll take it! 

I'm assigned to a grower that contracts for two helicopters.  We position them on this grower's property in an LZ (landing zone) they've set aside for us.  They've also provided complete hookups for a couple of RV's.  The other pilot and I have individual motorhomes.  It's not exactly plush, but it's not bad either.  Hey, I could stand on my head for two months if you paid me enough.

The other night just before sunset, a big storm had formed just to our northeast, moving to the southwest.  It looked as though it would barrel right over us and drench us as it passed.  The other pilot and I stood outside, watching it keenly.   Thankfully, it dissipated before it got to us, leaving us with only a few sprinkles.  It did, however provide a spectacular rainbow.  I can't recall ever seeing one so complete.

Nature can be pretty interesting sometimes.  I remain unconvinced that rainbow would be there had the earth evolved from...whatever...but had man never come into existence.  Nope, I believe that cool stuff like rainbows were put here specifically for us humans to enjoy.  And that, we do!

06 June 2018

More Changed Plans

When I got home from Washington State last year, I vowed that I would not return for the 2018 season.  I bought a motorcycle and planned to ride it all summer long with my friends, Jacob and Terry.  I live in Florida.  I've made my life here since 1987.  And there's a reason why I stay: I love Florida!

Since starting my little summer sojourn to Brewster, Washington in 2011, my stay up there got progressively longer.  It mostly lasted six months.  And it's fun, don't get me wrong, but it takes a huge chunk out of my life here where I call home.  My boss at the helicopter company would like me to move to Washington full-time, but I just don't see that happening.

This year the helicopter industry finds itself in the midst of a pilot shortage.  The ad we put for pilots got only a fraction of the views and very, very few resumes in response.  We ended up not having enough pilots to cover the contracts for cherry-drying that were already in place.  Early on during the process, it became clear that I'd have to go back and cover one of the ships.  And that's what happened.

So here I go, on the road again...or more accurately in the air again.  United Airlines has agreed to fly my butt up to the town of Wenatchee, where the boss will pick me up for the two-hour drive up the Columbia River to Brewster.  This year, I'm only staying for thirty days. 

Anyway, that's the plan.

30 May 2018

Cab Driver Stories: Taxis versus Uber, Part II

THE TAXI PROBLEM

Taxis have a bad image.  My friend Matt travels a lot and thus uses hired-cars to get to and from airports.  He makes the sweeping generalization that, ”Taxis are awful.” In his experience they probably are. And whether that is absolutely true in every city or not, it has become conventional wisdom. To wit: Taxis are beat-up, uncomfortable, smelly cars driven maniacally by foreigners with little command of the English language. Oh yeah, and taxis are super-expensive.

(I should point out that here in Pensacola our per-mile rate is $2.25. It's the cheapest in the state of Florida and hasn't been raised in over ten years.  Uber's per-mile rate is $.91 but they add on a bunch of extra fees, so you can't make a true apples-to-apples comparison.)

If you've ever operated a vehicle and had ten or fifteen different people get in during separate trips every day of the week, you'd understand why taxis are generally not brand-new in appearance or condition. They do get beat up by passengers who don't give a shit about them. People litter...they spill stuff...they get sick...they break things...they sometimes stink. It's why most cabs have spartan interiors made of heavy-duty materials. 

Additionally, taxis generally rack-up tons of miles per year...and nearly all of it is city-driving. It's a hard life for a car.  With my taxi (a 2006 Ford Freestar), even though I only worked three days per week I was still driving 3,000+ miles per month.  Now with Uber, it's even more.

Well why not just replace the cab every so often and keep a nice one on the road? Good question. But look, nobody is getting rich operating a cab. At most, you can average...if you're lucky...$1.00 per mile (your revenue divided by the total of all miles, revenue and “deadhead”). Big cities like New York and such where “deadhead” miles are fewer are the exception.  Here in Pensacola, the rule-of-thumb is revenue-out / deadhead-back.  So while you make $2.25 per mile with a passenger in the car, you're coming back empty the same distance, which makes your net revenue for that trip $1.12 per mile.  Add some cruising around between fares or deadheading to a dispatch pickup and your revenue-per-mile goes down even further.  For me it always remained right around $1.00/mile.

If your vehicle costs you $0.30/mile to operate, that doesn't leave much left over for profit and living expenses, never mind vehicle replacement. So unfortunately, most taxi companies keep their cars on the road as long as possible, sometimes longer. They delay or completely forego maintenance items like shock absorbers and oil changes, etc.

For us owner-operators, banks and credit unions don't like to finance taxis. ”We don't do commercial loans!” one particularly testy credit union loan officer told me back when I was buying my first cab. So in cities like Pensacola, drivers buy cheaper cars they can pay for in cash. Even the “big dog,” Yellow Cab has a large percentage of older cars in their fleet.

From the driver's perspective, you don't exactly need a college degree to do this job. No special training is required (other than learning and having an intimate knowledge of your city, and since the invention of GPS even that is no longer a prerequisite). Thus, cab driving attracts those who...let's be honest...may not be suited or even able to hold any other type of job. The pay and working conditions aren't great enough to attract those who might otherwise go to work for NASA. The end result is that you often get to ride to the airport driven by the dregs of society in claptrap beaters with meters.

If the cab even comes at all.

Here in Pensacola, when people call Yellow Cab for a ride, that company has, incredibly, stopped giving an ETA of when the driver will arrive! ”We'll get to you as soon as possible,” they say. Now there's some stellar customer service, no?

Add it all together and you have an unpleasant and undesirable situation for the potential passenger/customer. It is no wonder that taxis have such a bad reputation across the nation.

Then again, the paying passenger is not in the cab for very long – it's not like you're going to ride in the thing to California or become good friends with the driver. Most taxi trips are short. You want a limo? Hire a limo, you cheapskate.

THE RIDE-SHARE SOLUTION

When Uber/Lyft were invented, the emphasis was on nice cars. Uber initially claimed that they'd only allow cars that were no older than three years. That has been expanded to fifteen years here in Pensacola and many other cities. When I signed-up with Uber there was no vehicle inspection required of my car. Marketed as “Your own private driver,” Uber didn't exactly come out and promise a limo-like experience, but it was implied. And indeed, many Uber cars are nice, often higher-end late-model cars that are meticulously maintained by their proud owners.  Drivers were encouraged to be friendly, to offer water and snacks, and to play the kind of music the passenger liked to listen to.


Add to all that a cellphone app that works easily everywhere in the country...an app on which you can actually see on a little map on your phone the car that's coming to get you...an app that tells you the driver's name, his "star rating" and the license plate of his car...I mean, why wouldn't you use Uber instead of a regular ol' taxi?

Compared to traditional taxis, Uber was a breath of fresh air. Customers became infatuated with the new service.  They were lead to believe that it was really possible to get a "taxi" ride for less money in a nicer car...and that somehow Uber could make that work out.  The question is: Will the business model hold up? Or will we eventually see Uber cars become just like conventional taxis (i.e. more beat-up and just about the same cost) but with a better method of dispatch and payment? Time will tell.

23 May 2018

Cab Driver Stories: Taxis versus Uber, Part I


Throughout the world, and especially in the U.S., public transportation of people for hire is regulated. Whether it's a small municipal bus service or one like Greyhound that travels across state lines, operators are subject to various government regulations. Whether it's a small air charter operator with a single-engine Cessna, a little helicopter giving rides at a county fair, or a big airline like JetBlue, same deal.

The Department of Transportation regulates for-hire travel here in the U.S. And for good reason. We don't want just anyone starting an air service and carrying passengers around for a fee. We expect that there would be some minimum standards of service. Pilots need to be properly trained and licensed; airplanes need to be inspected and maintained and airworthy; the operation must be defined as to scope and area.  You wouldn't want a charter operator in flat and swampy Pensacola to fly up to and start doing business in, say, Colorado without special training on the hazards of mountain/winter flying.

Wherever you look, whether it's a railroad or just a shuttle bus in your home town the service is regulated by some agency or entity. Even taxicabs have traditionally been subject to regulations, although mostly on the state or local level. We put up with such regulations because we understand that there needs to be some sort of governmental oversight and scrutiny in the interest of public safety.

Then along came Uber...

Uber initially claimed that they were not taxis, oh no! Uber was merely an informal, internet-based “ride-sharing” service by which people could arrange for a car to come and take them somewhere for a fee. Why, that's not like a taxi at all!  Uber claimed that they were only an intermediary (just an internet app, really), matching up like-minded passengers with independent drivers.  The fact that the drivers actually work for Uber, and that Uber insures the trip, collects the money for the trip and pays the driver...well, they were swept under the carpet as inconsequential.  Not like a taxi at all!

Along the way, Uber morphed into a “ride-hailing” service.  And what kind of vehicle do we hail? Right, a taxi. Local governments were too stupid to notice the subtle change.  And in any case it didn't matter - Uber already got their nose under the tent and there was no stopping it.

From the federal down to the local levels, our government is typically run by old people who are generally not hip to all this new technology with which we're constantly bombarded. All across the land, moronic local governments (like the one here in Pensacola), smitten and awed by the shiny technology of hailing a cab ON OUR PHONE!...gave Uber carte-blanche to operate with basically ZERO regulation or oversight. No special driver licensing or background checks/fingerprinting, no vehicle licensing or inspection...no commercial insurance...no nothing. Anybody with a car could now be a cab-driver!

(To clarify, a taxi must have expensive commercial insurance in place for EVERY mile it drives here in Pensacola, whether empty or with a fare. On the other hand, Uber only provides commercial-level coverage for the passenger when they are in an Uber car. At all other times the Uber driver relies on his personal auto insurance policy. It's a clever manipulation of the rules and could arguably be considered insurance fraud.)

What happened next was predictable: the dismantling of the taxi industry. Full-time cabbies who depended on driving a taxi for their livelihood found themselves put out of work by a bunch of part-time, unregulated independent-contractors driving for Uber as a “side-hustle.” Nationwide, cab companies have been systematically put out of business by these “ride-hailing” companies which governments are now calling “transportation network companies” which is just a bullshit way of saying “a cab company but we don't want to call that.”

Here in Pensacola, the taxi business at the airport is virtually dead; Uber has taken over. In this town, the only thing taxis have going for them is that the Navy doesn't allow Uber on the base...yet. There are approximately 4,000 sailors and Marines here, fresh out of boot camp, most of whom cannot own cars and all of whom want to be OFF THE BASE! on the weekend. So from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening there just aren't enough taxis to handle the demand. For a cab driver, you can make a pretty decent living just working the base on weekends. Which is what my friend, Terry and I did...or used to do. But once the Navy starts letting Ubers on the base, it's game-over for the taxis. I suspect that'll happen sooner rather than later.

The question is: Should the transportation of people for hire be regulated on the local level as it is on the federal? Should there be any regulation at all? Many states, like Florida have abolished their statewide rules for taxis and vehicles for hire, leaving it up to local municipalities to make their own rules...or not. The states hilariously claim that this “levels the playing field” which it absolutely does not. Most cities simply follow the state's lead. But not all.

For instance, Pensacola still has their “legacy” rules for taxis in place, which seem onerous now compared to the free-reign they've given the “ride-hailing” services. The city even removed the one-and-only taxi stand we had downtown. If our idiot mayor thought he'd see less traffic downtown at night on the weekends, he didn't anticipate the substitution of the comparably few (or at least finite number of) taxis for the jam-up of unlimited Uber cars that now prowl downtown trying to snag the closest “ping.”

If anything, traffic is worse.  And here's why.

In the past, taxis would cruise up the street. In a time-honored tradition, someone would step out from the curb and hail one. The cab would stop, the people would climb in, and the cab would be underway again with fairly minimal delay. Now, an Uber passenger clicks on the app from inside the bar/club.  The Uber car goes to the pickup point, double-parks in the street with its flashers on and waits for the rider(s) to eventually come out of the bar, which they typically don't do until they receive a notification that the Uber car has arrived. The police have begun hassling such rideshare drivers for blocking traffic. Gee, whodathunkit? One problem for another. (Yes, I drive for Uber now. No, I don't work downtown on the weekend.)

Ultimately we have to decide how much government intervention we really need in our lives. Right now, people seem to want it both ways. We want air travel, buses and railroads to be well-regulated, but not taxis! We're willing to make an exception for Uber/Lyft because of the incredible convenience they provide, and we thus gloss-over or summarily ignore the issue of regulation and public safety.  Seems to me that carrying people for hire is carrying people for hire no matter what particular mode of transportation it is, whether they're in a four-seat Cessna or a four-seat UberX.

I'll deal with “the taxi problem” in Part II.

15 May 2018

Cab Driver Stories: The Big Switch


Me and my buddy, Terry May, Pensacola, Florida's two newest Uber drivers.  (It may not be clear in the pic, but Terry is the one wearing shorts and a knee brace.)

Life is strange. Don't ever let anyone tell you it's not.

As I mentioned in my post on May 2nd, I have switched from being a taxi driver to driving for Uber. And now, two weeks down the road (if you'll pardon the pun) I can report: So far, so good. It's like taxi driving, only easier.

My cabdriver friend Terry was witness to the speed and ease with which I was able to find a replacement vehicle for my aging Ford minivan. He has a similarly-aging Dodge. And although his van was still in pretty good shape, you just never know what's going to break next on a car with 200,000+ miles.

Casually perusing the online ads, Terry found a late-model Dodge for sale at a used-car dealership over in Mobile, Alabama. It looked to be in nice shape, but was priced $4,000 below “book.” Terry called the dealer and got the bad news: Hail damage to the hood and roof. Hmm. We decided to go take a look at it anyway.

The hail damage was minimal, or at least as “minimal” as hail damage can be. Yeah, it was noticeable on the hood if you looked just right. On the roof there was virtually none to speak of. We took it for a test-drive. With 86,000 miles it still drove like new. The interior was immaculate. Like mine, it was a one-owner car. The dealer had it since September and he wanted it gone; hence, the low price.

The taxi drivers here in Pensacola call Terry, “Mr. Lucky” because of all the good trips he gets. His good-fortune continued. A buyer “magically” appeared for his pickup truck that he hadn't been driving much in the last five years. Then a guy came along and wanted to lease-purchase his current taxi. Suddenly Terry had no reason to not buy this van. He did, and then with some understandable reluctance he signed up with Uber, which was the great-unknown for us.

So now we both have “new” Dodge minivans...vans with zero maintenance issues...vans that people get in and go, “Is this brand-new?” (Yes, they are that nice.) We went from taxi drivers to Uber drivers literally overnight.

Our cab driver buddies act as if we've committed an act of treason. They plaintively ask us, “Are you coming back?” We reply ambiguously that we might return, but the truth is that neither Terry nor I would ever go back to driving a regular taxi. I'll get into the reasons why in future installments here.

In the meantime, Terry and I just laugh that we quite suddenly and unexpectedly made the Big Switch from taxis to Uber.  And it wasn't nearly as traumatic as we imagined.

10 May 2018

The Pensacola Beach Ferry Service


The geniuses who run this backwater burgh we call Pensacola, Florida, in a misguided effort to decrease the ridiculous vehicular traffic on the beach every weekend, will be instituting a ferry service between downtown and Pensacola Beach. Small ferries, you ask? Oh nooooo! Big ferries. But not car ferries...people ferries...150 passenger ferries.

A round-trip ticket is supposedly going to be $20. We'll see.

Two big boats have been purchased with a $5.2 million grant from BP Oil as a result of their Deepwater Horizon disaster back in 2010. An operator has been found that is experienced in such things. In the newspaper, they say they will hire between 30 and 40 people. Service is scheduled to begin (fingers crossed!) June 15th. No ticket kiosks or infrastructure of any kind is in place right now. Personally, I think the start-date is kind of optimistic.  We'll see.  

The ferry operator hopes to attract 900 people per day. And by that we can assume that they mean "Saturday and Sunday." Because nobody is going to take the ferry during the week, period. Weekly ridership will probably not even cover the expenses of running the two boats on those days.

Hmm, let's think about this. 900 people per day? They're dreaming. We're talking LSD-induced fantasyland here. But let's humor them! Let's figure 900 people times $20 equals $18,000 per day - less if we deduct the discounts for groups, military, children and senior citizens they're talking about. Still, setting those aside for the moment, that's potentially $36,000 for the weekend...and...ohhhh, let's be optimistic...maybe another 500 people during the week, or an additional $10,000 revenue, giving gross sales of $46,000 for the week. Roughly $180,000 for the month.

“Great!” you say. ”That's a lot of money!”

But hold on a minute. That's not year-round revenue. The ferries may be able to generate that kind of revenue on nice weekends during May, June, July and August. Maybe. But there's no way...no way! they can sustain that kind of traffic year 'round. I don't even know if they intend to run the ferries all year long, but the revenue has to be spread over twelve months because the costs of the boats and the infrastructure (piers, etc) don't go away. I'm not sure what the ferry service's annual operating costs are, but I'll bet that they're considerable! And I'll bet that the service will only run six months out of the year.

And let's not forget that even in the summer, not every weekend is suitable for the beach. We do get storms! Hurricane Season runs from the beginning of June through November. So there's always that possibility. But in addition, the ferry probably won't run if the water is particularly rough. So a storm out in the Gulf of Mexico that doesn't affect our local weather might render the boats unusable.

But again, let's be generous...let's assume they can do $750,000 in revenue for the year.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that I don't know much about operating boats. However I do know a lot about operating airplanes and helicopters. And I'm sure that boats can be just as expensive to maintain, even when you're not using them. And while I have no idea what their actual operating costs are going to be, I suspect that the service will operate at a loss.  While the purchase of the ferries may have been subsidized, the operating costs are not.  It cannot run at a loss.

As I said and believe, the passenger ferry service is misguided. But the government has to do something. The weekend traffic out on the beach has gotten unbearable. It often takes an hour or more to get out to the beach at midday on a weekend.

The beach is a victim of its own success. It's beautiful! We've got that famous sugar-white sand. We've got some really good hotels, restaurants and clubs. As we used to say in the groovy 1960's, the beach is happening, man! Our Chamber of Commerce markets it heavily. We are known as “The Redneck Riviera” due to all of the visitors we get from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. It's not flattering but it's true.

Another part of this is due to our idiotic local residents. We've got about 300,000 people in the surrounding Pensacola area. And on the warm, sunny weekends they all want to go to the beach. These morons can't seem to get up before eleven a.m. They get on the road around noon, all heading for the beach. Anyone who's lived here through one summer knows that the beach gets FULL every Saturday and Sunday without fail. By one p.m. there is literally no place left to park. Traffic through the city of Gulf Breeze is choked to a standstill. The Three-Mile Bridge that goes across Pensacola Bay to Gulf Breeze gets backed-up all the way to Pensacola. But the faithful are undeterred. By God, they're going to the beach!

Our stupid Santa Rosa Island Authority (the agency that runs the beach) will not detour or shut down the traffic entering the beach; they just let people come and come and fight it out for the parking spots. And those people do come, mostly in cars and big pickup trucks carrying only one or two people. Car-pooling? Not in Pensacola, thank you! As a taxi driver I see this first-hand. As I'm stuck in crawling, bumper-to-bumper traffic, my passengers stare gloomily at the meter, which never stops clicking ever upward. You might say that I'm part of the problem, but I go out there and do not stay; I just drop my people off and leave.

There was talk once about building a multi-story parking garage on the beach. The plans came to naught. Turns out it couldn't be built between the end of one season and the beginning of the next. So that idea was dropped. Recently, someone actually suggested the installation of traffic circles/roundabouts as a way of smoothing the flow of traffic. Traffic circles! The idiots around here can barely navigate a conventional intersection much less one where the rights of way are not clear. Then there are the pedestrians – so many pedestrians!...yet the county will not build crossover bridges to get the people off the roads.

Local governments are horrible at actually solving problems. They'd rather just “kick the can down the road.” Which is what they've done here. The summer traffic problems on Pensacola Beach will not get better on their own. A passenger ferry service will do precious little to help alleviate the overcrowding.

But they can dream!

You can read the story in our local newspaper HERE

https://www.pnj.com/story/news/local/pensacola/beaches/2018/05/09/pensacola-bay-ferry-service-track-start-june-15-says-operator/592403002/

02 May 2018

Cab Driver Stories: If You Can't Beat 'Em...

Good-bye, old friend

It all happened rather suddenly. One day I was a happy taxi driver in Pensacola, Florida; next day I'm driving for Uber.

My taxi, a 2006 Ford Freestar was becoming...how you say...troublesome. The van has 206,000 miles. It was on its third transmission (a well-known problem with this make/model) and even this one was starting to act up. The $3,000 repair was not something to which I was looking forward. Plus, I'd been having air conditioner problems.  

My rear a/c had stopped working altogether,  and up front I couldn't keep a compressor working for more than a couple of weeks. (The shop I use kept generously replacing them under warranty but even they were getting frustrated that they could not find the source of the problem which clearly was in my car and not their compressors.) There were also other electrical glitches that I knew had expensive fixes. Clearly, the van was reaching the end of its useful life as a profitable taxi.

We all know this. We know that eventually vehicles wear out and need replacement. Smart taxi drivers put away money for that. You can keep putting money into the vehicle in repairs, but sooner or later it ceases to be economically viable. Parts for my Ford are super-expensive.

So I started looking for another van. I considered buying a sedan, but minivans are just so much more practical. Over the years I've been asked to carry so much weird stuff that would never fit in a sedan. I wanted a Chrysler/Dodge van. They're not particularly durable, but Chrysler made a gazillion of them. Parts are plentiful and they're cheap to repair. In 2008, Chrysler redesigned its iconic minivan. The design has been the same ever since, and the 2008's are nearly indistinguishable from a brand-new one.

I found a very nice, one-owner 2010 Dodge Grand Caravan at a local dealer. The thing had a little more miles on it than I would have preferred, but it was immaculate – cleanest one I'd looked at. It just so happened that my friend Terry and I visited them on the very last day of the month. And boy were they in a mood to sell!  We made a deal. I won't say that I "stole" it, but they did immediately come off their asking price, and they agreed to take my van in trade, sight-unseen, and give me a “fair” price for it as well.

About that: These old vans from the mid-2000's are not worth much, especially if they have high miles on them as my Ford did. The fact that the dealer would take it in trade (even if we all knew that it was going immediately to a wholesaler) was the deal-maker. It meant I wouldn't have to sell it myself, which would have required paying someone to take all the taxi decals off. They get baked on and are not easy to remove. Plus I would have felt like a shitbag for selling someone a van with a faulty airconditioner and transmission.

The biggest decision was not to put the new van back on as a taxi. Nope, I'm switching to Uber! Yeah, I know...consorting with the enemy and all...

There are a lot of reasons for this. In the end it was kind of a coin-toss. What tipped the scales for me is that as a taxi, working the Navy base and the airport has become a huge pain in the ass. It seems that nobody likes taxis anymore  - not the base commander nor the airport manager. In the end I just said, “Screw it!”  Working the base is just not worth the hassle anymore.  Working the airport is nearly as bad.

So it's good-bye, taxi and hello, Uber. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.