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In the first few years of Uber’s existence, airport pickups were done like all other pickups. Whoever was closest to the passenger, got the ping.
But now that they’ve added a queue system, the question is – should you wait in the Uber airport queue or not?
In this post, we’ll be looking at the pros and cons of Uber airport pickups, then provide you with some easy strategies for making more on these types of trips.
The Uber Airport Effect
In the good ole’ days, the Uber airport system meant when drivers went to the airport they would simply circle around (endlessly) until they got a call. That came along with a whole system of strategies that drivers invented to improve their odds.
Under that system, as long as you were the driver who was right in front of the terminal when a passenger call came in, you had a good chance of getting that call. But since no airport lets drivers just hang out in front of the terminal all day – you only had a precious few minutes that you could sit there.
Eventually, after just a few minutes, the police would force you to move. And it could be at that moment that a passenger decided to call. The moment you had to leave the terminal area and a new driver replaced you.
That driver might get the call you had been circling around for several hours hoping to get. And he may have just shown up and only waited a few minutes! It was an infuriating system and very unfair.
Although, that didn’t stop drivers from coming up with interesting and innovative strategies!
One strategy was to park in the terminal short-term lot and actually go into the terminal with your Uber phone. That would without a doubt put you closer to the passengers than you could ever get sitting in your car. And it meant you could stay as long as you liked. Or, as long as you were willing to pay for parking.
Some drivers got so good at it, they had the airline schedules down pat. And they knew which flights were more likely to result in Uber trips. So, they would park in the terminal parking lot just a couple of minutes before these flights were supposed to land and head into the terminal just as passengers were getting into the baggage claim area. If they were lucky, they’d have a trip out within about 15-20 minutes.
Those didn’t feel like the good ole days at the time – but they were! I remember talking with several drivers and we all wished for a queue system, so we could just go park somewhere and wait for a call on a first-come first-serve basis.
We all suspected the current system couldn’t last forever because we knew that eventually the airport authorities would get tired of hundreds of drivers circling endlessly around the terminals. And we were right.
Finally, the day came (after a one to three year wait in most cities), when Uber and the airport authorities were able to meet up and come to an agreement on how to handle a queue.
Mostly that meant getting the airport authorities to a point where they were so desperate to do something about the traffic and congestion around the terminals that they were finally willing to allocate a lot where Uber and Lyft drivers could park.
When the Uber airport queue first started, it was great! As are most things with Uber – when they first start. And like most things – it didn’t take long for it to go downhill.
Estimating How Long the Queue Will Take
In the early days of airport queues, drivers would go into the designated queue lot and sit and wait for a call. In those days, New York City’s two New York airports, (Newark would come later), drivers could get in and out usually in under an hour.
The driver app was annoyingly inaccurate during that time. It would give you an estimate of how much time they expected you would have to wait. If it started off at 15 minutes, you’d know it would be at least an hour. Thirty minutes, would mean an hour and a half to two hours. And it gave you no idea at all of exactly how many drivers were in front of you.
I remember wishing it would just tell us how many drivers were in front of us. Eventually it did, and that worked out very well.
It told you the exact number of drivers in front of you. Like 23 or 44. And you could watch the numbers count down and you could come up with your own better estimate of how long it would take.
That system worked well as far as giving drivers a good feel for how long they’d have to wait. But importantly, it gave you a good idea of how much longer you’d have to wait.
Usually after about an hour drivers would get antsy and start thinking about giving up and leaving. But when you could see there were only 3 cars in front of you, and it’s gone down from 5 cars in the last ten minutes, you could guess that you’d be better off waiting.
However, Uber even changed that! And made it worse.
It’s like no good thing can last too long with them! Now, instead of giving you an exact count of the number of cars ahead of you, Uber places you within a range of ten cars. So, it will say you are between the 21st-30th car in line. Then you’ll wait a very long time and eventually it will say you’re now between the 11th – 20th car. Then the 1st – 10th car.
This system has very serious drawbacks though. Because if cars are disappearing at say, the rate of one car every 15 minutes, then knowing that you’re between 1 and 10 – isn’t helpful at all. You could be looking at a wait time of 15 minutes or a wait time of two and a half hours… and you have no idea which one it is!
If cars are disappearing at the rate of one car every 15 minutes, and if you’re car # 10 – you have a two and a half hour wait ahead of you. But if you’re car # 2 you only have a 30-minute wait. Or if you’re car # 1, just a 15-minute wait.
Since you only being given a general range, it makes it very difficult to predict with any degree of accuracy how long you’ll have to wait for that ping. And if you can’t predict how much longer your wait will be it makes it very difficult to make a smart decision on whether or not you should wait.
The way they run the Uber airport queue today and the way they inform drivers of the queue size is completely unhelpful to drivers. The only way for drivers to have a feel for how long they’re going to have to wait is to have learned from experience. But experience can take a long time to gather and it can cost you hundreds of dollars in lost times as you gather it!
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So, the best idea is to talk to as many drivers at your airport as you can. Different times of day have different wait times. Different days of the week have different wait times.
The only way to really know what you need to know about the Uber airport queue is to talk to as many veteran experienced drivers as you can. And you should talk to as many drivers as you possibly can.
That’s because every driver tells some truth and every driver blows some smoke. The only way to figure out what’s true and what’s not is by talking to a lot of drivers. If you talk to a lot you’ll start to see that 99% of the drivers told the same thing on one aspect of the story. But they varied on everything else. You’ll at least know that the things they all agreed on, must be true.
For instance, say every driver you talk to told you the airport is always dead in the middle of the day. Well, you can pretty much assume that’s true – and it will save you from wasting your time going out to the airport in the middle of the day and waiting – in an effort to learn on your own! Instead, learn as much as you can from other drivers.
The Decision to Wait Should be Based on an Earnings-Per-Hour Calculation
With the wait times in the early days of usually around an hour to hour and a half, it was usually worth the wait, mainly because the wait times were short and Uber’s rates were much higher back then.
I’ll use some personal examples to give you an idea how you should make your decision of whether to wait or move on.
In the early days of Uber, a trip from LaGuardia airport – which is the airport that’s closest to Manhattan out of the New York area’s three major airports – would earn an uberX driver $45-$60 in about 30-45 minutes of drive time. So even if they had to wait two hours, plus the half hour it might take them to complete the trip – $45-$60 for two and a half hours wasn’t bad.
It came to a respectable $20-$24 an hour – for uberX! Which is far more than the average uberX driver can earn per hour today. In New York, we used to say that $20 per hour was our break-even point.
If you could get a quicker turn-around time and get out of there within an hour, then you’d be earning around $33-$35 an hour on just the LaGuardia to Manhattan trips. A lot of us made a living for a while on doing back-to-back LaGuardia trips. We’d pick a passenger up, drop them off in Manhattan and turn right around and head back to LaGuardia.
But when you factored in the frequent extra-long trips that we’d get every 3-4 trips that would earn us $100-$150 in an hour to hour and a half – we were actually averaging more around $42-$47 an hour – on uberX! Which wasn’t bad!
The sweet spot was at night! That’s when the airport got seriously busy and it was in conjunction with little to no traffic on the roads! So you could complete those trips really quickly, go back to the airport and get another one and do it all over again.
There were many nights when we’d get a ping before we even got to the queue lot it was so busy! And the usual 30-45 minute trips back to Manhattan, late at night were 15-20 minute trips. So you’d earn about the same per trip but in almost half the time.
What Went Wrong with the Queue System?
We were loving the new airport queue system… but of course Uber had to change things up – and as always happens when they change something – they made it worse.
First, they started slashing rates – every year for two-three years. They kept adding more and more drivers until the point they had far more drivers than they could ever possibly need. This resulted in much longer wait times in between – for not only airport trips but all trips.
Now at New York’s three area airports it is typical to see 100-140 drivers waiting in the queue at any one time. This is because of a combination of factors. But it’s mostly because there are so many more drivers on the road than are needed, that drivers just aren’t seeing enough business in the city to make a 3-4 hour wait time (when you’re earning no money) seem like a bad deal!
If there were fewer drivers and each driver was kept busier, you’d see a lot fewer drivers waiting at the airport lots. And it’s probably the same wherever you are.
Because of these factors, those waits at the airports jumped up to a minimum of two hours. There is no longer any such thing as a one-hour wait. That combined with rate cuts makes it much more difficult for airport trips to be profitable.
Those $50 and $60 trips from LaGuardia to midtown Manhattan became $25 and $30 trips. If you waited an hour and a half and the trip itself took a half hour, your total time invested is two hours but your total payoff is only $25 or $30. Or, $12.50 – $15.00 per hour. That’s simply not worth it.
And if your wait time is two hours (which is more likely today) your hourly pay is just $10 to $12. Which is definitely not worth it.
Today, if I get a trip from Manhattan to LaGuardia (or any other New York area airport), I will turn around and head right back to Manhattan if I don’t get an “insta-ping” after I drop the passenger off. It’s simply not worth the wait at these low rates to hang out in the airport parking lot for up to two hours or more.
In Manhattan, as an uberX driver, you can generally make between $18 – $23 an hour. Even at the low end you’re going to average more in the city than you will waiting at the airport.
The InstaPing Effect
Uber promises airport passengers that they’ll be picked up within 4 minutes. Well, it’s not possible to promise a 4-minute pickup time if all your drivers are coming from the queue lot.
Around New York it takes at least 10-12 minutes to get to the terminals from the queue lots – 15-20 minutes if the traffic is bad.
So Uber has developed a system whereby drivers who just dropped a passenger off at the airport, will get the next ping, if one comes in while they’re still in the terminal area. So, in essence, there are two queues.
There’s the queue lot where drivers wait for hour after hour for a call. And there’s the terminal queue which is a whole separate queue system and it consists of all the drivers who are coming in and dropping off.
So effectively, there are now two Uber airport queues!
This is why it makes even less sense to wait in the queue lot. Because for every car that disappears out of the queue lot there were maybe ten passenger calls that went to drivers who were in the terminal queue… drivers who had just dropped off a passenger and got an InstaPing. That means the drivers in the lot are literally waiting ten times longer than they would have waited if Uber had not invented the terminal queue.
And the most infuriating thing about this is – Uber never bothered to mention any of this to drivers until it had been in effect for many months.
With all things considered, too many drivers on the road, rates that are way too low and InstaPing, we don’t think it makes sense in most cases to wait at the airport for a trip. You’re almost always better off heading back to the city after dropping off.
We say that with one precaution. When you do drop someone off at the airport – WAIT – in the terminal area for 10 minutes. That’s the length of time Uber allows you to be in the terminal queue. Ten minutes – that’s it.
If you don’t get a call after ten minutes – then our recommendation is to skedaddle outta there and get back to a place where you can actually get some calls and keep making money! It is not going to be worth it for you to wait 2-4 hours for what might be a $20 trip!
Jonathan Cousar began driving for Uber in 2013 when the ride-hail company first began operations in New York City. He has booked more than 7,000 trips. In 2014 he created Uber Driver Diaries, which was the first blog by an Uber driver describing the highs and lows of driving as well as offering tips and tricks and information on the industry as a whole. In 2016 Ridester acquired the site, and Jonathan began writing full-time about the rideshare industry and the gig economy. He has also done extensive research into driver issues related to pay and working conditions.