There is no doubt that the taxi business in Bali is a viciously competitive game. Companies not only have to compete against each other, but with hordes of private bemos and ojeks – those ubiquitous motorcycle taxis. Cruising cabs, empty and desperate, clog up main streets and relentlessly beep every potential fare. Except for Bluebird, Bali’s taxis do not even attempt to compete on the basis of service quality. They instead choose to use pressure tactics, force, intimidation and political leverage to eliminate any opposition that they deem a threat. Or they imitate Bluebird’s logo on their own cars. All manner of small scrawny avian symbols adorn the roofs of the pretenders and sometimes a keen eye is needed to discern the difference without experience. Why? Easy – Bluebird is better than its competition.
Astute visitors to Bali have long known that the safest and cheapest taxis here are operated by the Bluebird Group. Their cabs are clean, their drivers well-groomed, courteous and honest, and their meters (always used without asking) are not rigged. They will pick up a fare for a short trip without complaining, understanding fully that multiple flagfalls in a short time translate into more income than widely separated long journeys with empty returns. In short, they are professionals. No surprise that people will stand in the rain, ignoring cabs from other companies just to secure a Bluebird.
Competing taxi drivers hate this, but seem to be oblivious to the reasons this is so. I have been abused, as has my Bluebird driver, by angry cabbies demanding that I hire them instead. Why should I? I make my choice of transport on the basis of service quality and my experience. And my experience over 10 years of frequent visits and 10 months of residence here is that I am more likely to be ripped off by non-Bluebird drivers. There is no space here to list all the transgressions I have seen over the years, but here a few:
I arrive at the airport, bags in the boot. The driver (non-Bluebird) points to the meter which shows 85,000 for what I know is a 45,000 fare in a Bluebird. Then he says: “You must pay me extra 30,000 for airport parking”. The parking receipt for 3,000, normally placed on the dashboard by professional drivers, has mysteriously disappeared into his pocket. OK, I’ll play the game. I get out, pulling my wallet out and go to the back of the car for my bags. The driver screams at me: “You pay first!” I stand my ground. He throws my bags out of the boot. I give him the exorbitant fare. “Where is my tip?” he demands. “My tip is ‘be nice to your mother’”, I reply. He is angry and resentful. “You must pay parking fee! 30,000!” I give him 3,000. He is enraged, that peculiar fury you see when someone is caught out doing something dishonest. I suggest we talk to a nearby security guard, one previously unnoticed by him. He leaves quickly, mouthing some pungent obscenities in Bahasa. I am pleased at my grasp of Indonesian profanity.
Some weeks later, I arrive at the airport, pay for the taxi ticket to Legian and score a surly specimen from the airport taxi crowd who won’t help me with my bags, but sprints ahead yelling cepat! – hurry up! At my destination, he tells me I must pay him the 55,000 rupiah fare, which of course, I have already paid. “No, no – that is just booking fee – you pay me for trip now”, he says. I manufacture a smile and make sure I get my bags. Only then do I stop smiling and walk off while he yells at me some more. Do they teach these guys fake rage at taxi school? Or is it real?
Then there is the ‘taxi mafia’ enclave at the end of Jl. Abimanyu in Seminyak. Try waving down a Bluebird there – they can stop to drop off passengers, but woe betide any who try to pick them up. I hailed one, and five other drivers immediately materialised and physically threatened my guy, who not surprisingly, left with an apologetic look at me. I only wanted to go to Eat Street – a short run of perhaps 7,000 rupiah through the back lanes, but was stuck with one of the thugs who had menaced my departed driver.
“Meter, please”, I say. “No meter” he replies. “There it is”, I point out helpfully. “Meter broken”, mutters the preman masquerading as my driver. “Fixed price”, he continues, “30,000″. “No”, I say. “Get out”, he replies, leaving me in a dark lane to fend for myself. So there you go. Nasty drivers, rigged meters, poor service, rudeness and dishonesty. Not to mention dirty cars, deliberately long routes, masking tape obscuring meter digits – all things that I’ve never experienced with Bluebird, but which seem to be endemic in other companies.
No wonder Bluebird are fighting trumped-up charges of “irregularities” in their permits, and demands that they take their cars off the road. Gee, I wonder who might be behind that? The philosophy seems to be: ‘if you can’t beat them fairly, try to destroy them’. What a crock. Guys, get your act together and give us good service instead – then we might all start using you instead of Bluebird.
But I think we all know that’s not going to happen.