Attacks dry up business for drivers

With few travelers, the back seats of limos in New York are empty

October 21, 2001|By Lewis Krauskopf | Lewis Krauskopf,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

BERGEN, N.J. - In better times, limousine driver Joe Fabrizio would have waited no longer than an hour before his Lincoln Town Car would be in demand for a passenger from Newark International Airport.

But since Sept. 11, Fabrizio, a driver for 18 years, has sipped coffee and chewed the fat with other drivers at the Starlight Lounge diner for as long as four hours, biding his time until an arriving traveler calls for a ride.

Commission-starved drivers such as Fabrizio and the limo and car-service companies for which they work have taken a pounding because of the drought in business and pleasure traveling since the World Trade Center attack.

Fabrizio, who lives in Rockland County, N.Y., and drives for Air Brook Limousine of Rochelle Park, N.J., has seen his half-dozen trips a day cut to three.

"It can be pretty devastating when you figure at the end of the month you've now produced half of your normal bookings," said Fabrizio, whose income hinges on the number of trips he takes.

`Lucky to stay in business'

Dependent on the troubled airline industry for passengers to fill their back seats, sedan and limousine firms in the New York City metropolitan area are reporting business losses by half or more since the terrorists attacks, forcing them to cut staff and, in some cases, pushing them to the brink of ruin.

"We'll be lucky to stay in business," said Bill Gorton, president of Gotham Limousine of Long Island City, N.Y., a 35-car firm that serves the metro New York area.

"We're not the only ones. . . . It is a severe hit to the entire transportation business in New York."

Barbara Pastelak, president of the National Limousine Association, said about 80,000 full- and part-time employees - drivers, administrative staff, and garage workers - have lost their jobs since the terrorist attack.

Thousands of companies will go out of business if ridership does not increase significantly "very soon," Ellis Houston, president of the Taxicab, Limousine, and Paratransit Association, told a congressional subcommittee recently.

The trickle-down impact of dormant skies has slowed the limo industry, which receives about two-thirds of its business from air travelers, Pastelak said.

The industry "has had its peaks and valleys, but nothing ever as severe as this," she said.

In New Jersey, 5,000 full- and part-time chauffeurs, dispatchers, customer service agents, and other workers lost jobs, cutting the state's industry workforce by one-fourth, said Tim Rose, president of the Limousine Associations of New Jersey.

Limousine use for entertainment also has taken a hit. Valentino Martinez of Paramus, N.J., a stretch limo driver for Air Brook, used to make five trips on an average Saturday, taking customers from New Jersey into Manhattan for dinner and theater.

But on a recent weekend, Martinez had only one Saturday trip to Atlantic City.

Government aid may help bail out the companies. Rose, the president of the state association, said that car service employees who can show that their incomes have been hurt since the attacks may be eligible for partial state unemployment benefits. They would be eligible for assistance if their companies are based in declared "disaster areas."

Pastelak, in testimony to a congressional subcommittee on aviation, pressed legislators to ease restrictions on interstate ground travel and to provide low-cost loans for businesses. She also asked for an unemployment package for laid-off employees.

Many in the industry said they expect air travel to pick up again. The key question is when.

Fabrizio, the Rockland County driver, said he's going to try to wait out the drought.

"I can stand it for another month or so without starving," Fabrizio said.

"But after that, we're going to have to see what we're going to have to do."

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