At a fare of just $5, SamTrans’ KX Express bus picks its passengers up on Mission Street and gets to the San Francisco airport in 22 minutes, a time and price combination that is matched by none of its competitors in both public and private transportation.
There is just one problem with the line: It doesn’t allow luggage on board.
That carry-on quirk is the result of a long-obsolete agreement between SamTrans and the San Francisco Airporter, a bus shuttle company. Citing a federal law that prevents public transit operators from hurting private competitors by providing below-market services, the Airporter group filed a legal claim in the 1970s to prevent SamTrans from running any express routes to the San Francisco International Airport.
Before the matter escalated legally, the two sides agreed to a deal that SamTrans would ban any luggage onboard its express routes as long as the Airporter was running its regular SFO service, which entailed permanent stops at downtown San Francisco and the airport. Smaller tote bags were allowed under the agreement, but big suitcases were off-limits.
That was 1981, and the Airporter has since long abandoned its original bus service. Jeff Leonoudakis, the former owner of the Airporter business who helped negotiate the settlement with SamTrans, sold the company to Super Shuttle in 2001. He said that Super Shuttle dismantled the bus schedule in 2006 in favor of charter van service.
“There is no direct private bus competition to those SamTrans routes anymore,” said Leonoudakis. “I don’t see why they wouldn’t allow luggage on the buses. It would probably get them more passengers.”
Despite the apparent lack of competition stipulated under the agreement, SamTrans spokeswoman Christine Dunn said federal law still prohibits the agency from allowing luggage.
Robert De Vries, a San Francisco- based lawyer, used to take the KX-Express bus down to SFO, but he said it was always a hassle to board the line, since different drivers interpreted the rule in different manners.
“I never knew if I was going to able to take my luggage or not,” said De Vries. “This rule makes no sense, but SamTrans kind of seems to be robotically following it without questioning its original intent.”
The enforcement of the luggage ban appears to have slackened recently. Mark Santos, a San Francisco resident who works two days a week at the airport, said he sees at least one person per trip bring a huge bag of luggage onboard the bus. Rarely do the drivers object, Santos said.
On Thursday, a driver on the SamTrans KX Express line admitted he almost never bars passengers from entering because of their luggage.
Still, on SamTrans’ online route description for the KX Express, it is explicitly stated that luggage is not allowed on the line between San Francisco and SFO.