Body odor is among 52 criteria that inspectors at San Diego International Airport use to evaluate taxi drivers who pick up passengers there — a practice that cabbies say smacks of prejudice and discrimination.
Leaders of the United Taxi Workers of San Diego union say the measure perpetuates a stereotype that taxi drivers, who are predominantly foreign-born, smell bad. A 2013 survey of 331 drivers by San Diego State University and Center on Policy Initiatives found 94 percent were immigrants and 65 percent were from East Africa.
For years, inspectors with the San Diego Regional Airport Authority have used a checklist for each cabbie — proof of insurance, functioning windshield wipers, adequate tire treads, good brakes. Drivers are graded “pass,” “fail” or “needs fixing.”
Anyone who flunks the smell test is told to change clothes before picking up another customer.
“What a dehumanizing way to treat your workers,” said Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the 18,000-member New York Taxi Workers Alliance.
Desai said her face reddened with anger and dismay when she learned about the San Diego practice. She suggested the airport leave it to customers to complain about body odor.
Drivers wonder how inspectors determine who smells bad. Abel Seifu, a 36-year-old driver from Ethiopia, suspects they sniff inconspicuously during friendly conversations in the staging area. Airport authority spokeswoman Rebecca Bloomfield said there is "no standard process" for testing.
Others drivers question how inspectors distinguish between them and their cars. The checklist has a separate item for a vehicle's "foul interior odors," which Bloomfield says may include gasoline, vomit or mildew.
"If they want to bring their smell detector, they can use it to test the customers and the drivers," said driver Negus Gebrenarian, 39, from Ethiopia. He, like other drivers, said an odor is just as likely to come from the back seat as it is from the front.
The airport authority says it is enforcing a policy of the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System, which regulates taxis throughout the region. The rules prohibit foul-smelling drivers and promote regular bathing. The airport authority also said the practice is aimed at satisfying customers.
"Taxi drivers are often the first impression that travelers receive when arriving into San Diego and we want to encourage a positive experience," Bloomfield said. Only about three drivers fail to get a passing grade each year, she added.
Inspectors have been conducting the smell test for years. There was no controversy until a union employee recently waded through a 568-page airport board agenda and noticed the checklist, which had been approved in July for revisions unrelated to the body odor test. Local news station KPBS reported on the practice last week.
Other cities have similar policies, but San Diego's appears to be more explicit than some others. Chicago requires that drivers be "clean and neat in their appearance." New York City's wording is similarly broad.
Seattle long evaluated cabbies for body odor associated with infrequent bathing and not washing clothes, but dropped that test last month for a more general requirement on cleanliness.
"The industry didn't like it and they felt that we were kind of overstepping. Why are we dictating to them? We don't tell city employees that you've got to shower more often," said Denise Movius, Seattle's deputy director of finance and administrative services.
Travelers arriving in San Diego this week had mixed views on the issue.
Sue Beneventi, 70, thinks cabbies are being picked on.
"If you're going to say cab drivers, shouldn't you also say waitresses and anyone else who deals with the public?" she said after returning from San Antonio.
Daniel Johnson, an 18-year-old Marine who came from Flint, Michigan, said it is fair to grade on body odor, especially considering the $70 fare to get to his base. He has felt trapped in smelly cabs in other cities.
"The smell puts a sour expression on your face and you're thinking ‘I just don't want to be in here’," he said.
The Associated Press