Curbing cabbies' vanishing act

The hide-and-seek routine of cabbies is one of the more annoying parts of the Kafkaesque patchwork that characterises the taxi industry here. It might be difficult to eliminate this particular bugbear faced across the island from time to time, but it's surely not beyond regulators to curb the cherrypicking impulses of taxi drivers at Changi Airport.

They have been observed to lie low while waiting for peak period surcharges to take effect at the appointed hour, despite the already long queues for taxis in the arrival hall. It's an altogether mingy display of indifference towards the larger effort of providing good and reliable service to the growing number of visitors here. Even if not all first impressions are formed instantly, weary travellers would have ample time on their feet to convince themselves that cabbies are the weakest link in the Singapore tourism service chain.

In fairness, Comfort and CityCab cabbies, who form 60 per cent of the taxi driver pool here, consistently met most of the stricter taxi availability standards set by the Land Transport Authority. The performances of Premier, TransCab and SMRT were marred by occasional lapses, while Prime failed badly enough to be fined $74,500 for not meeting the required percentage of taxis plying the roads during peak periods or the minimum daily mileage of 250km.

Overall, the proportion of taxis available during peak periods rose to 87 per cent, and those clocking at least 250km daily grew to 78 per cent in the first five months of the year. These are encouraging scores.

Yet deficiencies persist in certain areas, such as cabbies deliberately dropping out of sight. This might call for some tweaking of fare structures - for example, a graduated approach to time charges to make lurking less tempting. At the same time, more can be done to shape a consumer-friendly ecosystem that will remove the hassle of figuring out the taxi puzzle. There are 10 types of flagdown fares, more than 10 surcharges, three metered fare structures and eight types of phone booking charges. Complementing this hodgepodge is a mix of 30 types of cabs run by seven brands which employ eight different colours. Competition is welcome, of course, but confusion should be avoided.

Given the reliance of a section of commuters and many visitors on cabs to get around, taxi associations ought to drive home the customer service message so cabbies can look beyond daily concerns of meeting hire charges and earning sufficient income, important as these are. It is in their own interests to be service-oriented and thus help bring about the right balance of regulation and autonomy.