A driving force

Passengers arriving at Charleston International head toward the line of waiting vans operated through the Charleston Airport Association of Taxi & Limo Drivers.

For almost his entire adult life, Rubin Nelson has been a deliverer.

He carried cards, letters and packages from different post offices throughout the Charleston area for nearly 38 years before retiring as postmaster in Mount Pleasant in 2004.

Since then, he's made another kind of delivery.

He transports people instead of packages through his post-retirement taxi business and oversees the group responsible for ferrying passengers from Charleston International Airport to Lowcountry hotels, businesses, homes and other destinations.

Nelson, 67, serves as president of the Charleston Airport Association of Taxi & Limo Drivers, an organization he's headed for six years.

He's the guy about 30 different cab companies turn to when they want an increase in fares, want to talk policy changes and generally just sound off on taxi-related matters.

The even-keeled Nelson takes it all in stride.

"It's a diverse group," he said, while recently watching different cab companies line up at the airport as passengers poured out of the terminal to hail a cab. "My goal is to try to unite us. That's my biggest goal."

The group tries to do things to make sure it is still around at the airport for a long time.

Those include keeping the vehicles clean and showing proper courtesy to passengers, whose first impression of Charleston often comes while seated in a taxi.

On the way out of the airport, Nelson points out Boeing South Carolina, where 787 Dreamliners are assembled.

Nelson started working part-time as a taxi driver two years before he retired. When he left his postal work, he was ready to take it on full-time.

"I still had a lot of energy and saw that this would be a good fit for owning your own business," he said.

But he doesn't rely on the cab business for his sole income in retirement.

"It's a good supplement," Nelson said. "It's not for taking care of a family. For some people, if it's their primary income, they work a lot more hours."

Driving taxis is not lucrative because of all the expenses involved, he said.

Carrying people to downtown Charleston mostly, though there are occasional trips to Moncks Corner and Kiawah Island, puts a lot of miles on a vehicle over time.

About every seven years, or roughly 300,000 miles, Nelson needs a new set of wheels. Plus, he and other cab drivers are required to carry $500,000 in liability insurance on each vehicle they operate for taxi service.

And, of course, there's maintenance. Vehicles, as everyone knows, need upkeep, but sometimes things go wrong when drivers least expect it.

Once, one of Nelson's two taxis, which operate under R&N Transportation, stalled on International Boulevard as it was leaving the airport with a passenger. The transmission failed, leaving the driver and passenger stranded. Nelson had to hurry over to get the passenger to her destination and then have the disabled taxi towed for repair.

"It's a good thing I had a backup," he said.

About six months out of the year, taxi drivers make good money.

Usually, near-perfect temperatures in April, October and November draw tourists to Charleston in droves. May and June, with Spoleto Festival USA running over late spring, also are good tourist months. September can attract visitors as well, Nelson said.

"The other six months are kind of flat," Nelson said. "Historically, it's always been like that. We are just kind of making it then."

Taxi drivers have to meet certain airport standards, too.

For example, any of the 55 licensed taxis at the airport must meet a minimum number of trips each month to operate at the airport, said Maxine Hamilton, assistant manager of ground transportation at Charleston International.

For example, she said, in October, 49 taxis, the number of licensed taxis before being raised to 55 last fall, ran 10,478 trips for an average of 214 trips per taxi.

Each cab has to reach at least 50 percent of the average number of trips per month. For October, that would have been 107. If after three consecutive months, a vehicle fails to make the minimum number of trips, its license to operate at the airport can be suspended by the Charleston County Aviation Authority, Hamilton said.

"I don't think there have been any suspensions since I have been president," Nelson said.

Generally, only five taxis are allowed to wait in front of the terminal for passengers at any given time. That's because of security rules mandated after the 2001 terrorist attacks. Other cabs wait in a staging area near the airport. A central taxi stand calls for more cars as needed.

Sunday is generally the busiest day for taxi drivers with people coming back into town after the weekend, Nelson said. Tuesday is the slowest day for the cab business.

Nevertheless, he said the airport is busier than ever.

"We've definitely seen an uptick since JetBlue and Southwest started coming in," he said.

JetBlue Airways started nonstop service in February 2013 with three daily flights to the heavily populated Northeast. Southwest Airlines entered the Charleston market in 2011 with nonstop flights to four cities.

"We handled 21,000 more trips last year than the year before," Nelson said. "The majority of those went to downtown Charleston."

About 1.3 million departing passengers passed through Charleston International, the state's busiest airport, last year. That number is expected to rise 29 percent to 1.74 million by 2022, for an average annual growth rate of 2.9 percent. That projection is based on population growth of 2.3 percent each year through 2022.

The airport board last fall approved a 17 percent fare increase for taxis operating at Charleston International. It was the first rate hike since 2005, and it matched the cost-of-living increase.

It costs $2.52 per mile for the first two passengers and $14 per additional passenger.

Airport staff is reviewing the rate structure after airport board member Mallory Factor said it might be cheaper to take two taxis for a large family, based on his personal experience.

Nelson didn't want to delve into the issue until airport officials come back with a recommendation. That's not expected until later this year.

"It's rare that we have large families take a taxi," Nelson said. "They tend to rent cars."

Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.