Black cab drivers are sleeping overnight in their taxis as they wait for fares in 24-hour queues at Heathrow.
Cabbie Lee Macey said drivers have been living in “shanty towns” for much of the last year as they wait to pass through the airport’s feeder park onto the terminals.
Taxi drivers have been hit hard by the loss of custom during lockdown across London.
And they say queuing for a whole day for one £75 fare at Heathrow is more profitable than driving across London looking for punters.
Mr Macey says cabbies are sleeping at the airport to keep their place in the huge queues, using gas stoves and kettles to make food, while sleeping on hammocks, mattresses and blow-up beds inside their cabs.
Heathrow should become busier in the coming weeks as the ban on foreign travel is lifted on May 17 and the government reveals its holidays ‘green list’.
But struggling cabbies will suffer yet another blow in the form of a huge pick-up fee increase as the airport tries to recoup unprecedented losses brought on by the pandemic.
“You’d be surprised at the lengths these people have gone to,” Lee, 42, told the Mirror.
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“It’s not something I’m proud of. It’s something where I said to my partner don’t tell the children I sleep in the cab.
“Tell them that I just work through the night because I don’t want them to think I can’t sleep in my own bed.”
The dire situation was captured in a series of photos taken by Leon Neal in November, with the likes of cabbie Keith Littlemore seen resting on a mattress in his cab.
And the Mirror understands the situation has not improved in the months since.
Lee, from nearby Uxbridge, said some drivers even use bits of wood that go across two chairs to lay their temporary beds as they wait for the first flights to arrive in queues of dozens.
“I’ve got my hoover with me, you do your hoover, you get your wipes, your Dettol spray around the surfaces – the customer gets in and they have no idea that that was your bedroom for the last 24 hours,” he said.
“I think you’re there because what else would you do, sit at home? It’s easier to feel like you’re going and doing something. Even as miserable as it is. You just have to try and make some effort.”
He said temperatures plummeted well below zero over the winter and one morning he woke up to ice on the inside of the window.
“There are members of staff that will come round, check that you’re in your cab and if you’re not there you’ll be banned for seven working days,” he continued.
“It’s like a different world. You’ve got guys there with gas stoves, making breakfast, kettles. It’s like a shanty town. You wouldn’t believe it.”
He said some cabbies do that for five days straight and then go home for the weekend, “with very little money”.
“Since January all I’ve covered is my expenses and that’s it. No profit at all,” he added.
Lee estimates his regular income has dropped by 80 percent since the Covid outbreak started.
He claimed at one point over last summer – despite the drivers waiting there all day and night – there were no toilet facilities or anywhere to get drinks on the rank, with the cafeteria shut.
However, a Heathrow spokesperson said while certain facilities were closed due to Covid guidelines, the toilets have been available throughout the pandemic aside from during routine maintenance and repairs.
It comes as the London airport prepares to treble the pick up fees paid by Black Cab drivers from July 1.
In a letter sent to taxi trade representatives on April 1, and seen by the Mirror, Heathrow Airport Limited said it had “successfully reduced the size of contracts and service of the TFP” by £386,000 or 24 percent.
However, it said TFP revenue last year was £1.4 million lower than the operating costs of the service.
“The record-low passenger numbers in 2020 and continued low passenger volumes in 2021 mean that the per-unit cost for use of the TFP will be £8.33 (+VAT) from 1st July 2021,” it added.
It’s a move that many believe could decimate the trade and force hundreds of cabbies to look for work elsewhere.
Currently, drivers pay £3.60 each time they pass through the airport’s taxi rank but the changes would see it rise to an estimated £10.
“I really feel like Heathrow are keen to erase the Black Cab from the airport,” Lee said.
“It’s a sure way to get rid of everybody and then maybe they can get a private hire firm in and pay them X amount to take over things.
“I think it’s just so unfair to pass that charge on to the drivers who are still not earning any money.
“It’s not like we’re a trade in the pandemic who’s doing really well out of it and our wages have tripled.
“We’re queueing up for 24 hours and you’re grateful for a £70 fair into central London, but by the time you get there there is nothing else.”
Prior to the pandemic, Lee said the queues into the terminal were around three hours per pick up.
But despite the increased waiting times, with the airport just 15 minutes from his home, it still often makes more sense to wait all day rather than traipsing round the capital looking for fares.
In comparison, just before Easter he dropped his kids off at school and then drove to Hammersmith for 9.30am and by 7pm had made only £38, before expenses.
“You can see why queueing up at the airport for the average job of like £75 or something, it kind of makes sense, rather than driving round and round burning diesel. It’s a waste of time.”
Lee said many of the cabbies would be happy to increase the fee to help out, but by around £1 or £1.50 at most.
The fee is issued every time a driver passes through the feeder park onto the terminal, but not if they are dropping off passengers between terminals.
And if a customer pays by card, a driver also has to pay a percentage of the fare.
Lee said further plans for introducing a forecourt access charge (FAC), including for drop offs between terminals, of a reported £5, could mean drivers “end up out of pocket for doing a job of say £16 or £17”.
Paul Brennan, chairman of Licensed Taxi Drivers Association – which represents just over half London’s black cab drivers – said the pandemic has been “absolutely devastating” for the trade, which has been “hit just as hard as the aviation sector”.
“Travel restrictions have resulted in a near total collapse in passenger demand, both at Heathrow and across London. In normal times, the taxi feeder park at Heathrow is essentially London’s largest and busiest taxi rank,” he said.
“But at the height of lockdown in January, the number of taxis moving through was down 93 percent on the year before and drivers were waiting long hours for a single fare.”
“We have tried to work with Heathrow to find a solution that would allow the airport to recover its losses and not do further damage to our trade.
“Unfortunately, they have been unwilling to consider spreading the cost recovery over a timeframe that would keep the entry fee at a sustainable level.”
He added, LTDA is calling for recovery to be spread over five years.
A Heathrow spokesperson said: “The regulated price for the taxi feeder park is calculated purely to cover the cost of operating the service and does not generate any revenue for the airport.
“Covid-19 resulted in a near total collapse in passenger volumes, and as a result black cab usage did not cover the cost of operating the taxi feeder park – even despite steps we took to cut costs by 24 percent last year.
“We have delayed increasing the charge for the taxi feeder park for as long as possible, but it will now increase from 1 July.
“The price will decrease in future as passenger numbers increase.”
The spokesperson said Heathrow is also in talks with Transport for London about altering meters to help spread the cost of the TFP increase.
They added the details of the proposed forecourt access charge announced last year are “still being finalised”, with similar access charges already in place at most major UK airports.
A TfL spokesperson said: “We regularly consult on the fares structure for black cabs. The exercise takes into account changing costs faced by the industry.”