I've been travelling a lot lately. Which means I've been in and out of Bucharest's Otopeni Airport. Sometimes, Claudia can pick me up. But when she can't, I use Fly Taxi. Fly Taxi is the monopoly taxi service at Otopeni Airport. It's been around for about two years now. And the story of Fly Taxi is an interesting little parable of how things work in modern Romania.
Some background. Bucharest has just one commercial airport: Otopeni, recently renamed Henri Coanda. It's about 20 km (12 miles) north of the city. It gets twenty or so international flights a day, plus lots of local ones to other cities in Romania. Now, up until last year, if you arrived at Otopeni Airport, you really, really, really wanted to have someone to pick you up. Either a friend or a pre-arranged taxi driver. Because if you didn't have someone to pick you up, then you had two choices, neither of them good. 1) You could take the bus. Very cheap, but also crowded and painfully slow. About an hour to reach the city, most of which you'd spend standing. 2) You could take a taxi. This option would present itself very quickly. Step out of the arrival gate, and you'd be surrounded by men yelling at you. "Taxi! Taxi!" They were pretty aggressive. They'd pluck at your sleeve, get in your face, try to grab your luggage away. "Very cheap! Where do you go? Good taxi, here!" You could wave them away, but they'd follow you persistently right out of the terminal. If you actually gave in and took one of their taxis... well. I did it twice. First time: I negotiated the driver down to about $20. I knew the going rate should be about $14, his opening offer was $50, I was tired. Fine. But... he spent the entire trip trying to renegotiate another $5 out of me. We weren't out of the airport before he was turning around in his seat to leer at me in what he obviously thought was an ingratiating sort of way: "Twenty five dollars!" "No, twenty dollars." "Twenty five dollars very good!" "No. Twenty." "Come on... twenty five dollars!" "No." "Where are you from?" [thinking, no, we are not making friends here] "America. Twenty dollars." "America very good! Very --" [gesture of rubbing money with hands. I am not making this up.] "Twenty dollars." [Remember, all this was after we'd already agreed on a price. Apparently getting into the taxi reset the negotiation.] "Is very good! Twenty-five dollars. Very good." "NO." "Twenty-five dollars." "Okay, stop the taxi. Stop." [With an 'aw, come on' look'] "No, no! My friend. Is no problem." [Thirty seconds silence] "So, twenty-five dollars?" It went like that all the way home. I won't even mention the guy who dropped me off at Piatsa Dorobants... well, okay. I told him I lived 'near Piatsa Dorobants'. As we got close, I said it was on Strada Bruxelles, which is about three blocks away from the Piatsa. For driving those three extra blocks, he immediately tried to charge me another $10. We could not reach agreement, so I ended up piling out of the car with all my luggage and walking the last three blocks, garment bag over my shoulder and suitcase rolling along the sidewalk behind. (The taxi driver followed me the first 50 yards or so, waving his hands and yelling. He went down to five bucks, okay, stupid rich foreigner, five lousy bucks... then he just yelled something unpleasant at me and drove off.) My, my, the memories. My point here is: you didn't want to take a taxi. Bucharest taxi drivers are not generally that bad, but somehow the airport attracted the most obnoxious and dishonest ones. Which brings us to Fly Taxi. I mentioned it was a monopoly, right? Well, it was set up that way. And then bid out, with a bid process that was public and open to all. Transparent procurement! Very modern and European. Except that the bid was structured rather oddly. It said things like, "To qualify, you must already have a fleet of at least sixty large taxis. Painted silver. And you must be willing to post a rather large bond. And your taxis must all have antilock brakes and, ummm, air bags." As it turned out, only one taxi fleet could fit these rather precise requirements. This taxi fleet ended up being the only one that bid on the contract. So, no surprise, it won. You'll probably be shocked, shocked to hear that the fleet was owned (through an intermediary) by someone who had previously served in government at a high level, and who had very close connections to the former PSD administration. Also that he expanded and upgraded his taxi fleet a few months before the bid went public... doing things like painting the cars silver, and adding air bags and antilock brakes. So: a smelly little sweetheart deal, which got past Romania's rather toothless Competition Council (the local equivalent of the FTC) and is now locked in for years to come. (IMS Fly Taxi's monopoly runs until 2014 or so.) And -- again, big surprise -- Fly Taxi, having a monopoly, charges monopoly rates: more than double the normal taxi fare. But. Fly Taxis are good. Okay, it's not Tokyo or even London, but by Bucharest standards they're terrific. The taxis are clean, and are roomy enough to hold our entire family plus luggage. The taxi drivers are polite and know their way around the city. And -- this is quite unusual here -- they're pretty good drivers. (Bucharest taxi drivers tend to be really awful drivers. Not just fast, but scary bad.) Use Fly Taxi, and you'll pay over double the normal rate. But that's still pretty low -- it's just over a dollar per mile -- and you'll have a decent experience. In a perfect world, there would have been three or four licenses, and the bidding would have been fair, and competition would bring the cost down to normal rates. We'd be paying about $8 for the airport trip instead of about $15. But at least now you can take a taxi from the airport. Before Fly Taxi, you really couldn't. The airport taxis were just too horrible: dirty, dishonest, bad drivers, just awful in every way. (They're still around, BTW. Not as many -- I think Fly Taxi has eaten a lot of their business -- but still a few, hanging around outside the gate from Customs, muttering "Taxi? Taxi?" to every foreign-looking traveller.) So, as with a lot of things about Romania, I end up of two minds. Fly Taxi is a state-granted monopoly, bestowed in a pretty overtly corrupt manner. It's charging well above the market rate. Every time I use it, I'm putting money in the pocket of a crooked businessman. But... I'm really glad that Fly Taxi exists, I think it's a huge step forward, and I use it a lot. And if you're coming to visit Bucharest, I recommend you use it, too. Maintaining the contradictions. It's just that kind of place, I guess.