Special Report: Black cabs v mini cabs at Heathrow

28 Aug 2010 by BusinessTraveller

London’s black cabs, along with its red buses, are as recognisable around the world as Big Ben or the Houses of Parliament. To become a black cab driver, hopefuls have to undergo training in a detailed knowledge of London within a six mile radius of Charing Cross including 320 routes (or runs) and all the landmarks and places of interest along the runs.

It takes between two and four years to pass the All-London Knowledge as it is known, and as a result London black cab drivers are admired around the world. Nevertheless, black cabs can be expensive and coming into the capital from London Heathrow, a charge of £70 or £80 is quite possible, although Heathrow Taxis says that the average is £50-55.

Clearly, competition might play a part in driving down prices, but whether in Central London or Heathrow, taxis have the advantage of being able to be hailed in the street or from a designated taxi rank, while private hire vehicles (minicabs) must be pre-booked. Likewise at Heathrow, only black cabs can be in the rank.

Last year BAA, concerned that it had little control over minicab firms operating in the airport, proposed having a preferred partner, one which would have a presence in the arrivals area. Passengers could simply walk out into the arrivals area where they could book a minicab and then either walk to their car or be taken to it. It did some research and chose Addison Lee. What happened? Over to John Griffin, Chief Executive of Addison Lee.

“The black taxis threatened to close down the airport,” Griffin says. “They were concerned that we would have profile there which they would find over competitive. So they made their threats and BAA said it would be too disruptive. They said “We just can’t take them on.”

London’s taxi drivers are represented through a number of organisations, including Unite and the RMT, and RMT General Secretary Bob Crow was quoted as describing the plan to deregulate the traditional taxi rank system at Heathrow as “a kick in the teeth for those thousands of men and women who have spent years doing the knowledge and who now find that they are being squeezed out by the minicabs.” Crow said that the system would make “... a mockery of the pre-booked status of minicabs...”

Of the 1,800 to 2,000 black cab drivers who work regularly at Heathrow (and who pay BAA £6 each time they come through the feeder park on the outskirts of Heathrow), the distinction is crucial. A spokesperson for the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association (LTDA) which represents the greatest proportion of black cab drivers said that their main objection was that having a booth in the airport would have “destroyed the distinction between immediate hire and prebooked.”

“The difference between black cabs and mini cabs is clear,” he said, “Mini cabs have to be pre-booked. What they were proposing was immediate hire. If you want a mini cab you can go up to info desk and they’ll supply you with a number and you can book them if you haven’t already. The taxi drivers pay for the privilege of being there.”

Michael Moran, the RMT union Heathrow taxi representative points out:

“Taxis are there by an Act of Parliament. Heathrow has to supply licensed taxi ranks at each of the terminals but the effect of this proposal would be to create two immediate for hire options. We have no problem with people being given the choice, but the private hire companies have to abide by the legislation.”

For its part, BAA confirms that it was concerned about passengers having no guidance as to reputable private hire firms, and so wanted to have a preferred partner. After research, it fixed on Addison Lee, but as a result of the opposition of the black cabs decided to alter the proposal.

“Instead of overtly advertising Addison Lee at the airport, now instead we recommend then,” a spokesperson says. What this means in practice is that “...if a passenger does not want to take a black cab, and instead goes to one of the airport information points and asks for a recommendation for a name or number of a private minicab company, Addison Lee will be recommended.”

How many passengers do this, of course, must remain a mystery. For Addison Lee’s part, Griffin says

“It hasn’t made a great deal of difference to us. We still pick up at the airport, we have ways and means. We have a feeder rank with a small amount of cars, but when the front driver goes he is replaced, and we have a larger rank outside the airport. The driver can go to any terminal, and with passport control and luggage you don’t get out of the airport in less than 20 minutes even if you are hand luggage only.”

Griffin says that passengers who have not pre-booked can still do so after landing simply by phoning the company, or using its new iPhone app.

“If you phone us we will still get there before you get out. The big plus of using us at the airport is that if you’ve made a booking you have mobile number of the driver. So while you are waiting for your luggage you can phone him and sort out where you are going to meet and how long will you’ll be. We also know when planes are late, we aren’t changing your waiting time because a four o’clock plane came in at six o’clock. The black taxi has a different role, they are on a rank. But we are about 25 per cent cheaper.

Griffin says that “If we tell you a car is going to be £50, that’s what it’s going to be, no matter what the traffic is like. Taxis aren’t like that. When you are sitting in traffic, the charge increases. But for us, each one of our drivers is encouraged to find the speediest route.”

It should be noted, however, that it is possible to preset the price for a black cab, and on the Heathrow Taxis web site “set pricing to central London, London train stations, other airports and local and outside London destinations” is offered (click here for more information). 

This may work out more expensive, however, since the price is agreed at one of the taxi desks, and incurs a 10% fee is paid for by debit or credit card. A fare from Terminal 1 to Mayfair in Central London is shown as £62. To see details on how black cabs charge and the tariffs, click here for the relevant Transport for London page

As for the taxi drivers, Griffin says:

“They are fearful of the sort of competition we are providing so they are using their muscle to try and stop us providing it, but not very successfully because we are still providing it. The taxi is an archaic vehicle. We can carry six people, we can carry luggage, we have air conditioning and ABS and you don’t pay extra for nights.”

As if the fight at Heathrow wasn’t enough, Griffin is also campaigning for the journey onwards into London, saying that his drivers ought to be allowed to use the M4 bus lane into London, which at present is reserved for buses, coaches and black cabs.

“The denial of our access to the bus lanes is illegal.” He says. “We are licensed by the same authority that licenses taxis, we are competing for the same customers, but we are being discriminated on access to certain parts of the road network that black taxis are allowed into.”

Controversially, Griffin asks his drivers to use the lane, and when they pick up tickets, intends to fight the action in court on their behalf.

“Each time one of the drivers is stopped or caught on camera doing it, they offer us fines, but you are given the right to go to court, and I have applied for it every time. Only after 120 tickets have they decided to say, “Yes, we should go to court to decide this thing”. We predict we’ll lose at the magistrate’s court, but then when we appeal the decision we will win in Europe.”

For more information visit

Tom Otley

For our comprehensive guide to Heathrow, including ground transport options, click on the link below.

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