The cab-filled parking lot with a view of Philadelphia International Airport’s control tower doesn’t look like much of a home away from home.

It is, though, for hundreds of city cab drivers, who spend hours there each day waiting to pick up passengers disembarking from planes.

The lot — used by taxi drivers for 20 years, they say — doesn’t offer amenities. There are a few tables and chairs, and portable toilets (which, drivers say, are cleaned too infrequently). They have customized the space themselves, though, particularly by buying and converting a trailer into a makeshift mosque for Muslim drivers, who make up more than 50 percent of Philadelphia’s taxi operators.

At the end of April, the airport plans to take back the lot on Island Avenue for its own use, even as the airport has promised a better waiting space for Uber and Lyft drivers. If taxis are relocated off the lot, airport officials said, the mosque would likely be shut down.

Cabbies see the decision as yet another case of their business being squeezed by ridesharing, and they want to push back.

Of about 300 drivers who regularly serve the airport, 278 voted Tuesday to authorize a strike that would end cab service from the airport indefinitely. Nine hundred of the city’s 1,500 taxi medallions are registered to provide service at the airport, an airport spokesperson said, noting that the drivers who voted to end service may not represent every driver who could pick up passengers there.

If a new arrangement with the airport can’t be reached, the strike would go into effect in a week. It would not affect taxi service in the rest of the city, said Ron Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania.

“We’re going to strike until we get some kind of results,” he said. “This is so important to people’s livelihoods, so we’re just going to take it as long as we can.”

Taxis provided about 1,440 rides-a-day from the terminals in 2018, the airport reported. That’s half as many as four years ago, and longtime cabbies see the changes at the airport as another story of Uber and Lyft displacing them. Cab fares citywide were about half last year what they were in 2014, and drivers are rankled that their experience, and the regulatory requirements of their industry, are being trumped by apps that essentially allow anyone to do their jobs.

“We have Uber; we have Lyft,” said Miron Frenkel, a Russian immigrant who has been driving a cab for 21 years. “I’m looking to not be slaves in the United States in 2019.”

Drivers emphasized how much work they’ve put into establishing a place of worship that allows Muslims to comfortably pray five times daily. The lot doesn’t have running water, so drivers connected a garden hose to a water source and created a row of spigots, so people could wash their hands, feet, and faces before entering the trailer, according to Islamic custom. The trailer itself came two years ago as a replacement for a tent that had been at the location. It cost $10,000, raised through driver donations. It has carpeting, a copy of the Quran, a gas heater, and space for 40 to 50 people to pray comfortably.

Muslim taxi drivers pray the dhuhr (midday) prayer in their makeshift mosque at the waiting lot for airport taxi drivers on Island Avenue in Philadelphia.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
Muslim taxi drivers pray the dhuhr (midday) prayer in their makeshift mosque at the waiting lot for airport taxi drivers on Island Avenue in Philadelphia.

“Wherever the Muslims are, they must have a worshiping place together,” said Sekou Sackor, a cab driver from Liberia.

There are no spaces available within the airport that drivers could access specifically for the purpose of practicing their faith, said the airport spokesperson, Florence Brown.

“As it relates to the parking lot, it just isn’t a place where we think a vehicle or a mosque would be appropriate,” she said.

The airport’s regular car-for-hire drivers, whether they’re driving an Uber or a taxi, need to be nearby and on-call. The lot the airport is seeking to close holds about 160 vehicles and is its first staging area for taxi drivers. When they arrive there as early as 3 a.m., they report to a dispatcher and wait until there is a significant demand for rides.

When they’re dispatched, often 10 taxis at a time, the drivers travel about five minutes to another lot adjacent to Terminal A. The wait for a customer there can be brief. The lot at risk of being eliminated allows drivers to be in the area of the airport without having to park illegally on entrance ramps or burn gas circling the facility.

The airport is in discussions with drivers through Parkway Airport Services, the contractor that manages ground transportation, and airport officials plan to meet themselves with drivers Monday, the day before the strike could go into effect.

“It would be unfortunate for passengers if taxicab drivers decide to strike,” Brown said. “Should this occur, we will collaborate with our other ground transportation partners, including shuttles, van services and SEPTA, to help support passengers in their absence.”

Brown disagreed that the battle over the lot is evidence of ridesharing drivers receiving favor over taxis.

The airport takes a cut of $1.50 per trip from the airport from taxis, Brown said. The cost of that is included in the passenger’s fare. Ridesharing companies pay the airport $3 per pickup and $2.60 for each dropoff, but that doesn’t cover the cost of providing waiting facilities for those drivers, Brown said. Uber and Lyft would provide additional compensation for a new waiting lot, she said.

“The amenities that will be available to the rideshare companies are commensurate to what they’re paying for those facilities in the future,” she said.

She didn’t say when the new ridesharing lot would open, but said it would accommodate 200 vehicles, the same as the current lot holds.

Airport officials have promised an app cab drivers can use that would provide information on how long they would likely have to wait to pick up passengers there. The app would reduce the need for a long-term waiting area, but drivers are demanding that the airport keep the waiting lot open until that app is available, likely not until the end of the year, Brown said.

Meanwhile, the taxi lot would become a parking space for vehicles belonging to the airport, Brown said.

For drivers, picking up a passenger paying the fare to go to the Pennsylvania or New Jersey suburbs can make it worth spending up to three hours idle in a staging lot.

“Normally we do a protest, or we might do a three-hour strike,” Blount said. “This time we have no choice. This is our survival.”