By Dustin Brown
A steep drop in travel to Manhattan and the airports has crippled the borough’s taxi business in the aftermath of the World Trade Center disaster, while the fear of bias has prompted many Middle Eastern cabbies in Queens to stay off the road for days.
Queens taxi companies were reporting between 40 and 60 percent drops in business over the past two weeks, a decline they attribute to Queens residents’ reluctance to travel into Manhattan in the wake of the terrorist assault.
The majority of the business for car services was concentrated in downtown Manhattan, a pool of customers that has dried up with the displacement of many companies by the terrorist attacks, said Hector Santana, the vice president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers.
In addition to the loss of business customers, taxi companies are experiencing a decline in calls for social excursions.
“A lot of people, if they have a drink or two, will use a car service. They’re not out right now celebrating, so you’re losing there,” said Grace Schehr, the general Manager at Kelly’s Car Service in Bayside. “They’re not going into Manhattan for shows, theater. You’re just affected all over.”
Companies that derive most of their business from the airports have also suffered since both LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy Airports were closed for days after the attack and still have yet to return to full capacity.
“It’s a big financial blow, because what you do is transport people to the airport and to the city, and right now that isn’t happening,” Schehr said.
The financial hardship may be strong enough to push some drivers out of the industry entirely, Santana predicts.
“Certainly there are going to be some people affected economically, and there will be some people who will have to turn to another industry to try to make a living,” Santana said.
Apprehension also prevented some drivers from hitting the roadways in the days immediately following the attack.
Ghazi Hijazi, the owner of Steinway Express Management, a yellow cab company in Astoria, said he said seen “absolutely no business” since Sept. 11.
“Everybody’s worried, everybody’s afraid to go to drive,” Hijazi said of his 300 drivers, nearly all of whom moved to the United States from the Middle East.
Hijazi said the drivers who agreed to work have taken in a fraction of their typical earnings, which he attributed in part to passengers’ reluctance to step into a cab driven by someone from the Middle East.
“Beside being afraid, also there are some situations where they see people who don’t want to ride with them,” Hijazi said.
Some are even returning to their native countries. Two drivers told Hijazi last Thursday that they are returning to Egypt “until the situation goes down a little bit.”
On Steinway Street in Astoria, a number of Arab drivers spent the days following the Twin Towers’ destruction at home and in local restaurants, as fears of anti-Arab violence prevented many from straying far from their neighborhoods. One said he heard a rumor, which proved to be false, that a Middle Eastern driver had been killed “for no reason” in the days following the disaster.
Sikh drivers have also been targeted in bias incidents because their turbans resemble the clothing worn by the Islamic extremists believed to be responsible for the World Trade Center assault.
“Cab drivers have had windshields broken,” said Surinder Singh Johal, the president of the Sikh Center of Flushing.
In the days immediately following the collapse of the Twin Towers, the taxi industry was completely paralyzed because congestion severely limited drivers’ ability to travel around the city.
The closing of bridges and tunnels and restrictions on access to certain roadways “made it worthless for a driver to go out on the street and try to earn a living,” Santana said. “A lot of them have not worked due to the difficulty of getting around.”
The immediate impact on the drivers’ livelihoods was palpable, according to Santana.
“They cannot get around, therefore they cannot do their jobs, therefore they cannot pay their bills,” Santana said days after the attack. “It’s like a domino effect for these guys.”
Reach reporter Dustin Brown by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 229-0300, Ext. 154.