Driven by Faith

Steve Wareham, an airport director in Minnesota, must respond to conflicting demands of customer service for passengers and religious accommodation for taxi cab drivers.

Case Excerpt:

When Steve Wareham heard that there had been another formal complaint about taxi service at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport (MSP), it came as no surprise. As Airport Director, Wareham had been working with the taxi advisory council for years to improve customer service. Together, they enhanced the taxicab ordinance with input from drivers, owners, and taxi companies. Wareham was proud of the progress made on key service issues through this collaborative process. But not every problem had been solved: one issue, which threatened to derail the larger process, had been tabled.

Beginning in 2002, Airport Staff became aware that some passengers who were carrying alcohol -- often visible in the plastic bags from duty-free shops -- had been refused taxi service. The drivers, many of whom were Muslims from Somalia, explained that their faith did not permit them to consume or transport alcohol. Wareham and his colleagues at the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), the regional governing body for airports, found the issue troubling. Such service refusals were prohibited by the taxicab ordinance: drivers who refused a fare for any reason were sent to the end of the line, and had to wait two to four hours for another fare. Losing fares represented a significant economic and practical hardship; for the drivers, this was an issue of religious accommodation.

Yet, given the practical concerns that arose curbside and the number of passenger complaints, refusals had also emerged as a serious customer service issue. Passengers being moved from one taxi to another disrupted the flow of traffic and posed a safety concern. Those who were refused service were confused and frustrated, and often insulted: on one occasion, a traveler threw a bottle of wine to the pavement in anger.

Since Wareham became Airport Director in 2004, he had worked closely with landside, the department that handles parking and commercial vehicles, to resolve the issue. Early on, he sought input from Somali community representatives and Muslim leaders. For a time, the taxi starter -- a dispatcher employed by the MAC -- would provide bags to travelers in order to cover the wine or other visible alcohol. It was a “don’t see, don’t look” policy. This worked for a while, but soon the drivers began refusing service to those carrying the distinctive bags. One cab company, which had all Muslim drivers, suggested that the starter refer passengers with alcohol to a cab from another company. After a few days, the MAC was asked to discontinue the practice: the loss of business proved difficult for the drivers and owners alike.

On March 29, 2006, Wareham received a message from Vicki Tigwell, the Chair of the MAC. She forwarded the most recent customer complaint: 

‘My wife and I needed a cab from MSP to Apple Valley. The starter directed us to a cab. After loading most of our luggage, he (the driver), noticed I was carrying duty-free liquor, and refused to transport us. The next three cabs also refused. The starter came out and finally located a driver who would take us. We were very unhappy about this abysmal treatment by four cab drivers. … I request you take action against the company and the driver, and draft a policy to prevent this behavior in the future.’[1]

Tigwell’s message ended with a directive for Wareham: “I expect you to solve this.”[2]

[1]  Steve Wareham, “Muslim Taxi Driver Cultural Clash at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport (MSP): Does Accepting a Customer with Alcohol in their Possession Violate a Prohibition of the Koran?” (Master’s Thesis, Bethel University, 2007) p. 6.

[2]  Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Steve Wareham: Steve Wareham, interview by author, Bloomington, MN, February 28 & 29, 2008.