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Why it’s impossible to find your Lyft or Uber at the airport

Every airport has a different ride-share pickup point, and every airport has different signage. Officials at LAX hope to change that.

Why it’s impossible to find your Lyft or Uber at the airport
[Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

You’ve stepped off the plane, you’ve gotten your stuff at the baggage claim, and you’re ready to hop in a Lyft and get where you’re going. Where should the driver pick you up?

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Airports across the country each have a different system–and vastly different signage–to indicate ride-share  pickup points, adding another point of stress to the already stressful ordeal of flying during the holidays. Some are conveniently located right outside the baggage claim; others require following unclear signs through what feels like half the terminal.

[Photo: David Goldman/AP/Shutterstock]

Why every airport is different

Even though ride-sharing companies quickly became a viable alternative to grabbing a taxi at the airport, companies like Uber and Lyft originally operated without permits and were banned at many airports. While drop-offs were generally fine, pickups were illegal, and drivers could get a ticket for using the normal pickup zones. So drivers ended up negotiating with passengers to find workable spots or they’d pretend to be their customer’s friend to avoid detection. It didn’t take long for airports to realize Lyft and Uber weren’t going away. So they rushed to reach deals and identify pickup points with the car-share companies. One problem: They didn’t think through how they might standardize the experience, including signage, from one airport to the next.

[Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images]
At San Francisco’s SFO, even the online instructions for getting a car are confusing, and differ for each terminal and each type of ride. At New York City’s La Guardia airport, many passengers have to take a shuttle to an entirely different location to catch an Uber. In Las Vegas, the pickup is located in a parking structure. At Chicago’s O’Hare, there are only three ride-share pickup points in the entire airport. And the signs differ just as dramatically: Some combine a typical symbol for a taxi with a symbol for a phone, while others just rely on “Uber” and “Lyft” as shorthand.

Wayfinding signage for rideshare apps at LAX. [Image: LAX]

LAX leads the charge toward standardization (sort of)

Airports can’t do much to standardize where they have pickup spots; they’re limited by existing infrastructure. But they can do a better job helping riders find their way.

The Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the city government agency that oversees L.A.’s airports, plans to adopt new signage that could ease confusion around ride-sharing at the city’s main airport, LAX, and, perhaps, beyond.

At LAX, pickups are especially confusing because they’re on the departures level only; passengers have to go back up to the ticketing level to catch their ride. The new signs use a new symbol, which has a car and a GPS location marker inside of a phone, to identify the pickup point, with the words “Ride App Pickup” next to it (in case the symbol’s intent isn’t crystal clear). The signs also explicitly tell passengers to go up to the departure level. That message is repeated through an additional reminder in your Uber app.

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The new system was developed by Los Angeles World Airports in collaboration with the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). The two organizations solicited input from more than a dozen American airports as well as a few ride-share apps. The collective tapped designer Mies Hora, the founder and president of consultancy Ultimate Symbol, which creates digital reference guides to widely used public symbols, to design the new emblem. Mora has written exhaustive reference books for designers on symbols, helping to build communications standards around the world.

LAX is the first airport to adopt the new signage, and the AAAE hopes that more American airports will follow in the coming months. Then, hopefully, grabbing a Lyft at the airport won’t be such a pain.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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