How Uber Helped Me Defeat the Airlines

I am an avid user of Uber, a rapidly-growing on-demand private car service that connects average folks like me with idle black car drivers at a fraction of the cost of a traditional private car hire. You launch the Uber app, get picked up within minutes, get dropped off wherever you want, and pay via a credit card stored with Uber, tip included. It's a cashless, affordable luxury experience that makes traditional taxis seem like an antiquated approach to the livery business. My friends and wife are sick of me talking about how great Uber is, and I was vocal in my support for the company in a dust up last month with the DC City Council and taxi industry. But last night in New York Uber helped to really save my skin. Here's how.

I live very close to Dulles Airport in the Washington, DC area and therefore often fly to New York for day trips. This make sense on paper -- it's theoretically faster than me driving 45 minutes to and from Union Station in downtown DC to take the train, even factoring in airport security -- but terribly unreliable. A few years ago I was forced to stay overnight in Manhattan trying to connect back from the West Coast to DC through JFK airport after late-day summer thunder storms shut down all New York airports; I nearly missed a close friend's wedding in South Carolina the next day. Last year I got home at 2:30 am after a canceled flight at JFK forced me to cab back to Manhattan, take a train back to DC, and then cab back out to Dulles to get my car.

Yesterday looked like a repeat. As I wrapped up a two hour meeting at 5:00 pm, I launched the Uber app to request a pick up for a car out to JFK to catch a 7:00 pm flight. I then thumbed through my email on my iPhone to kill the few minutes and was shocked to see a message from United Airlines mentioning that my flight had been canceled. No explanation and no indication as to whether I had or could be rebooked.

As I cussed and fumed, my Uber driver rolled up, so I jumped in and briefly explained that I wasn't sure whether I was headed to JFK or possibly Penn Station, thinking I would have to train it back to Washington. No problem, he said, take your time.

Then I fumbled around looking for a phone number to call United. The driver could tell I was having a hard time finding the number on my phone, so he just rattled it off for me from memory.

This bears repeating: he had memorized the United flight status number. When I expressed my amazement at this, he causally mentioned that he knew the flight status numbers for every airline, and had been driving a private car for nearly 25 years; why wouldn't he know them all?

The call to United yielded the predictable result: being put on hold endlessly with no resolution. My concern was growing: go to JFK or instead hop on a train? But I needed to make a decision immediately if I was going to get a train at a decent hour that still had seats. The rush hour Amtrak trains from NY to DC can be packed.

"Oh," said the driver, "here, use my laptop. I've got internet in the car too." And he handed me an 11" Macbook Air that connected immediately to high-speed 4G internet powered by a Mifi puck in the car.

This also bears repeating: my driver had a laptop and internet for me to use.

Thanks to the laptop, I quickly grabbed a seat on the next Accela train back to DC and was confirmed by the time we reached Madison Square Garden. I'd even charged my phone during the trip down from 59th street in the car's normal three-prong electric outlet, another small luxury for the weary business traveler.

My emergency trip back went off without a hitch, and when I got back to DC's Union Station I of course fired up Uber to take me back to Dulles to get my car. After a crazy day, it felt great to walk past the line of fifty-plus people waiting in the humidity for cabs at Union Station's notoriously long taxi line and hop straight into my waiting black Lincoln Town Car. Off we went, and I got home only about an hour later than I should have had the flight not been canceled.

Comparing Uber with traditional taxis is a flawed thesis, despite whatever the DC Council and taxi commission think. It's an entirely different class and type of service. Do taxi drivers have airline flight numbers memorized? Do they offer a laptop and internet access, or have an electric outlet for charing your phone? Do they even do basic things like accept credit cards? Do they pick you up on-demand? The answer is "no" to all. And that's why Uber rules.