Dawn Forest and her husband, Patrick, finally touched down at Tampa International Airport at 1:30 a.m. Wednesday, returning home after the holidays.
Tired from fighting the crush of the crowd, they wanted to get home and get some sleep.
They hustled through the airport and made it outside to the taxicab call button before everyone else from their Delta flight. A woman with four children came out, so they decided to let her take the first cab.
The young mother told the cab driver her hotel was on Dale Mabry Highway, Forest said.
"He told her, "No, no, no. I go to Busch Gardens, University, the beach,' " Forest said. "He just left her standing there."
The Forests, who live in south Tampa only a few miles from the airport, were similarly snubbed by other cab drivers who told them their $8 fare wasn't enough for them to justify making the trip when they could pick up other passengers who wanted to go farther for a much higher fare.
A couple with an infant child and an elderly couple with lots of baggage were also left standing at the curb.
At the time, Dawn Forest thought the cabbies were rude and thoughtless. What she didn't know is that they were also breaking the law.
"They can't do that," said Barney Fletcher, who works for the Public Transportation Commission. "They must take the passenger where they want to go. If they refuse, it's a second-degree misdemeanor, and they can be arrested."
According to a Florida statute and the Public Transportation Commission's regulations, "no driver shall refuse or neglect to transport to any place in the county any orderly person willing to pay the prescribed fare, in advance."
Two cab companies handle traffic at the airport. United Cab picks up passengers from the blue terminal, and Yellow Cab picks up passengers from the red terminal.
Cab drivers wait their turn in line, often for more than two hours, for a chance to pick up a passenger. When that passenger needs to go to Sarasota, the wait is worth it. When the passenger wants to go to a nearby parking lot or hotels in West Shore or Rocky Point, the cab driver gets a minimal fare and must go the end of the line to wait for another fare.
"Human nature is human nature," said cab driver Arnie Mize, 59, as he leaned over the gleaming engine of his yellow 1990 Chevrolet Caprice. "You've got a guy out here trying to support his family, and a guy over here wanting to go to the Alamo Rent-a-Car lot. Even if the driver gets $7 from that trip, after waiting for two hours, he's still getting robbed."
In the past four years, Mize has invested about $20,000 in his cab, which has a black-and-white checkerboard leather interior, a spotless trunk and a 350-horsepower engine.
He works 12 hours a day and never knows at the beginning of the day how much he's going to bring home. Tuesday, he took home $265. The day before he made $100 less than that, all depending on who needed a ride when it was his turn to take them.
"You can't refuse a fare, but if you have your choice of fares, you're going to take the best one," Mize said.
Usually, the drivers don't have a choice. A cab starter such as Clari Padua, who roams the baggage claim area for Yellow Cab, gets passengers in a cab and makes sure the drivers take them where they want to go, even if it's only a mile away.
"The customers like that sometimes say, "Oh, (the driver is) going to be so mad at me,' " Padua said. "I tell them that if the driver catches an attitude with them, they write down their name and cab number and call the company. We'll take care of them."
The problem the Forests ran into, Padua said, was because the starters go home at midnight and the cabbies are left to fend for themselves. Without starters watching over them, the drivers wait for the best fare instead of the first one.
"If she came in here at 2 (a.m.), she got caught in the madness," Padua said. "If we weren't here to regulate, no one would ever come to this airport. It would have such a bad reputation."
Because of all the delayed flights over the Christmas weekend, what happened to the Forests happened to plenty of other people.
Karl Martin, ground transportation supervisor at the airport, said he often gets complaints, but without the driver's name or cab number, he can't discipline them.
"The cab drivers get a little bold sometimes without supervision," Martin said. "If we could get just one cab number and discipline just one driver as an example, we won't have any more problems. This is a major offense. I suspend drivers from the airport for 30 days, and they don't want that. It's a privilege to drive out here, not a right."
Fletcher of the Public Transportation Commission said a passenger should approach Airport Police if a driver refuses to take them somewhere as that is a criminal offense.
But Martin said Airport Police will not arrest the driver.
"They will not step in," Martin said. "We won't let them do that. That's not an option. We don't want to be arresting cab drivers. Can you imagine the publicity?"
Dawn Forest said she thinks it's bad for the airport's image when tourists are left stranded in the middle of the night at the baggage claim.
"I felt so bad because at least we had someone to call to come get us," Forest said. ". . . To this moment I don't know what those poor people did. It gives Tampa a bad name when visitors are treated this way."