Blowing apart ground transportation

Last week at Executive Travel, we were planning our 2014 editorial calendar. I fought hard for one particular issue theme that was not well received: ground transportation. OK, I get that on the surface it sounds like a yawner. But it does strike me that a big change in business travel in the last year or two has been disruption in what has otherwise been a very boring part of every single trip: How to get to the airport, to the hotel, vice versa and everywhere in between.

Technology has changed everything in ground transportation, as it has everywhere else. Uber broke in with a shocking concept. Call a car with a text? What a great idea! See on your app where vehicles are? That feels a whole lot better than waiting on a corner, wondering when you might see a cab rounding the corner.

Once Uber opened the door, a number of other players entered the tech-enabled field, including Taxi Magic. Larger taxi companies developed their own apps. Groundlink and other car services began to communicate with arriving and departing passengers by cheeky texts. A number of taxi companies even got sophisticated by using payments via Square and in-cab credit card services.

There’s more. The car sharing economy reached into travel: Flightcar, Lyft, and others got into the fray…only to face law suits from municipalities that saw they were missing on the tax opportunity. Zipcar was acquired by Avis and now stations cars at airports.

Speaking of the good old car rental companies…. Well, there are just a handful of them now (though they retain most of the old branding), but they’ve made it easier and easier to rent. National’s new app is a great example of how technology can make a boring task easier. The app knows where the user is in the travel process and alerts him or her along the way to resolve issues (your credit card on file is expired!), so you can just jump into the car once you’re at the lot.

Ground transportation may not be quite to sexy yet, but it’s definitely gotten a whole lot more attractive. I’m curious to see what develops next.

Getting paid to park at SFO

Airport parking can really eat up a budget, especially when it’s for vacation and not reimbursed. So I was curious to try out FlightCar for a recent trip, a new enterprise at SFO (also BOS).

The concept is simple: Leave your car in their parking lot, and FlightCar rents it to other travelers while you’re away.  Sounds ridiculous, right? And risky.  But I was eager to save the $150 we’d pay in parking. And wouldn’t mind a little bonus if the car–a scuffed, five-year-old minivan–was rented. Ten days later and with a $60 check in hand , I’m sold.

FlightCar is the brainchild of three teens (the company’s CEO is 18!) who saw an opportunity of duplication: airport parking lots full of cars, and airport rental car lots full of cars. While their customer base appears to be growing, they’re facing a full-on legal battle with the City of San Francisco, which wants a cut of the action through taxes.

On our trip the company’s execution was excellent, with just a few rough edges. We reserved a spot online. Easy. On the day of the trip we called to let them know we were 10 minutes away. A limo drove us from the lot to the airport. On the return trip, we called when our flight landed and the limo met us at the curb. Once at the parking lot, we were given our freshly washed car and a check for $60.

The only sign that anyone else had used the car was a pair of Stanford parking stickers in the glove box. And the only delay was when our car was blocked by a car just dropped off–it apparently had a manual transmission, which none of the employees knew how to get in gear.

Sure there may be some risks. But FlightCar has them pretty well covered in the website FAQ. (And I’m not sure I’d use it if my ride was a just-off-the-lot luxury car.) But I give it a thumbs-up after our simple test drive.