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  1. Business

Hillsborough aviation authority sues rental car company Turo over unauthorized use of Tampa International Airport

TAMPA — Turo is like Airbnb or Uber for rental cars, and like Uber a few years ago, the San Francisco-based company is stirring up controversy at Tampa International Airport.

Airport officials say Turo car owners, who rent their personal vehicles to customers through the company's digital platform, are clogging the pickup and drop-off curbsides at the main terminal and that company is not playing by the same rules as other companies that do business at the airport.

So this month the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority sued Turo in Hillsborough Circuit Court. The suit contends that Turo's "peer-to-peer" rental website has offered, at one point, 198 rental cars that could be delivered to Tampa International Airport. But it said Turo does not have a permit to do business at the airport and does not pay any of the fees the airport imposes to help maintain its facilities.

"Turo conducts business in our parking garages and on our curbsides," airport spokeswoman Janet Scherberger said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times on Wednesday. "Like any other company that benefits from Tampa International facilities, Turo needs to follow the regulations and pay fees that support the maintenance and safe, efficient operation of the airport."

In contrast, the airport says, 11 other rental car companies paid more than $43.8 million in fees to do business at the airport last year. Along with parking and similar user fees, that money makes up about 46 percent of the airport's operating budget. Last year, the airport opened a 2.6 million-square-foot rental car center that was one key piece in a billion-dollar expansion designed to reduce curbside congestion and accommodate future growth.

BACKGROUND: Tampa International's massive update creates a new airport experience

The airport is seeking an injunction against Turo, an accounting of its business at the airport and an unspecified amount of damages.

In response, the company, which is involved in similar litigation with airports in San Francisco and Los Angeles, contends that the real losers in this standoff are consumers and drivers who make money renting their cars. Because of its peer-to-peer business model, it says it can offer lower rental rates than older rental car companies. Indeed, Turo insists that it is not a rental car company in the traditional sense, that it doesn't own its own fleet and it does not use airport parking lots, shuttles and other infrastructure that require the imposition of the kind of fees the airport charges other companies. As a result, it says its impact on airports is much smaller than more traditional car rental companies.

Rather, it contends that Tampa is the newest battleground in a multi-front war that Turo and similar companies are waging with long-established car rental companies, mainly Enterprise Rent-A-Car. In this conflict, being waged both in state legislatures and courthouses nationwide, each side says the other gains unfair competitive advantages from differences in how existing laws treat various companies in areas like taxation, safety regulation, inspections and recalls.

"We really see this lawsuit as part of a broader national campaign by Enterprise Rent-A-Car" — which is not a party to case — "and the rental car industry at large to try to kill peer-to-peer car sharing," Turo chief legal officer Michelle Fang said Wednesday. "We're very disappointed that Tampa International Airport decided to proceed down the path of litigation. As they well know, we are more than happy to be permitted at the airport as a peer-to-peer car-sharing platform. We understand their interest and need to have information about who is coming onto their property (and) to have appropriate fees for any type of commercial activity that's happening at the airport."

If this all sounds familiar, it should. In 2017, after three years of conflict, the aviation authority approved contracts with rideshare companies Uber, Lyft and Wingz to drop off and pick up passengers at the airport. The rideshare companies agreed that their riders would pay a per-trip fee of $3 for each ride — the same as for taxicabs, which had complained about the unlicensed newcomers — with the fees scheduled to rise over three years to $5 a trip.

Fang said Turo would not object to paying a fee in the range of what Tampa International has imposed on the rides provided by Uber and Lyft drivers, but not what rental car companies that park vehicles onsite and have counters in the airport pay.

"They need to be treated differently, because they are different," she said. "The impact to the airports is different. The business model is different. The industry is different."

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Contact Richard Danielson at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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