How one Pittsburgh Rideshare Driver is Leveraging Airports to Double His Hourly Earnings

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$9.00 per hour.

That’s roughly what Jeff Upton made the first time he tried waiting at Pittsburgh International Airport to score a big rideshare fare. He assumed that passengers leaving the airport were more likely to require longer rides home, which meant big payouts for him.

His thought process wasn’t entirely wrong. He did land a long ride, however, he had to wait hours to finally be hailed. Those are hours that he could have been in the city picking up passengers and making more money.

Jeff’s problem wasn’t that the “airport strategy” couldn’t work for him, he just wasn’t approaching it the right way.

Like many new drivers we talk to, Jeff assumed there was a constant stream of frequent flyers arriving at the airport throughout the day, but that’s not quite how it works.

As Jeff puts it “I realized that if I was going to do this rideshare thing that I had to be smart. I had to be strategic in when and where I drove.”

Since that barely above minimum wage day, Jeff has refined his rideshare strategy over three years and more than 5000 rides. He’s got his airport strategy down so well that he is consistently making $20+ per hour in the Pittsburgh market.

We’re going to share with you how Jeff Upton learned to master the airport strategy by driving smarter.

1. Plan your day around flight schedules

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Ben Franklin

Gone are the days when a rideshare driver could step out there door and near instantly receive calls for rides. While rider demand is increasing, so is driver supply. That’s why the most important skill a rideshare driver must have is the ability to plan out his or her day.

This is a lesson that Jeff learned the hard way when he first started driving with Lyft, and then Uber. He quickly started to ask himself things like:

  1. When and where should I be driving?
  2. What does “planning your day really mean?
  3. How do I know when to show up at an airport?
  4. What should I be looking for?

Jeff needed to make the most of the time he could spend driving, and for good reason.

Jeff is a social entrepreneur and a father, so every second counts for this guy. When he’s not shuffling his kids around (pretty cool that his kids have a free Uber driver), he’s shuffling around the elderly, donating furniture, or helping people understand their Medicare plans as part of his non-profit Friend of a Friend.

Jeff (right) and his partner moving a donated chair into a apartment.

Like many rideshare drivers we talk to, Jeff drives because it gives him the flexibility to do the things he really loves, and giving is kind of Jeff’s thing. However, he also needed to make a decent hourly wage.

That’s why Jeff started to think deeply about his driving strategy and developed a planning process. He started to check out websites like http://www.flightarrivals.com/ and Flight Stats which do a solid job of listing when flights are coming in. This is where Jeff started to develop his strategy.

Functional, but not exactly user friendly

“I would spend a few hours per week looking up and printing off all of these flight schedules so I knew when flights were coming in. It was tedious but I started to see the strategy work” says Jeff.

The problem with his method was that he just knew how many flights were coming in. In other words, he didn’t know how many passengers were actually arriving at any given time. There could be one flight coming in at 5 o’clock which is more lucrative than the eight flights coming in at 12 o’clock because there are 100’s more passengers on the 5 o’clock flight. Jeff just had no way of knowing.

When Jeff realized that he could leverage Gridwise to easily understand when peak hours at the airport would be based on passenger count, his strategy really started to pay off.

“I found Gridwise about the same time that I was starting to really refine my strategy for airports, so it was really perfect timing. I really was able to figure things out.”

Instead of hoping he was arriving at the airport at a good time, Jeff was able to predict exactly when rider demand at airports would be highest, which meant he wouldn’t be sitting at the airport for three hours when no flights were coming in anymore.

Each day, Jeff can take five minutes to review the flight schedules and understand when peak times at the airport well occur. So no more waiting hopelessly at the airport when demand is low. He can plan ahead and only be there doing peak hours.

Jeff can also check the airport queue to see how long drivers are expecting to be waiting. If there is a long queue and few passengers arriving, he knows to stay away.

Some drivers worry about exactly when you should arrive at the airport. Is it 30 mins before a peak starts? Right when a peak starts?

Free Bonus: Jeff uses Gridwise to know when peak arrival and departure times will be at his airport. You can do the same by downloading Gridwise for free here.

Understanding exactly when you should arrive at the airport can be an art form. The consensus among Gridwise users is that if you’re getting to the airport within 15 minutes of when a peak time is scheduled to start, you shouldn’t be waiting more than 30 – 40 min.

2. Catch a ride to the airport

After figuring out his airport arrivals strategy, Jeff decided to expand his strategy to include departures.

The beauty of understanding flight schedules isn’t just that you know when the best time to pick up passengers from the airport will be. You also know when people will be on their way to the airport.

“The logical next step was to start hanging around downtown near hotels a few hours before scheduled departure peak times,” says Jeff. “This is something that has become a big part of my daily planning.”

You won’t always catch a ride to the airport, there is some luck that plays into where your rides take you, however, you can dramatically increase your chances of scoring a passenger heading to the airport by hanging out in the right areas at the right time.

For drivers in the Pittsburgh market, downtown is the place to be.

However, every market is different. In DC, for instance, the downtown area is ripe with luxury hotels, but you can have just as much success in the Logans Circle, Dupont Circle, and Mt. Vernon Triangle areas.

In our conversations with Jeff and other Gridwisers, we’ve found that drivers are having success by being in these areas around 2-3 hours before peak departures.

3. Use Airport Alerts to Remind You When Rider Demand is Increasing

No driver can constantly stare at Gridwise, at least not when you’re with passengers.

So when passenger demand is changing constantly at the airport, recieve alerts on passenger demand and delays to help maximize your airport earnings.

Jeff uses Gridwise to set up alerts about the information that he cares about. This means everytime that passenger demand is at a certain point or there are flight delays, he’ll receive an alert.

4. Always Plan Ahead

Jeff can also use his Gridwise app to check the airport graph up to 24 hrs in advance. So he can plan his entire day right out on the app a full day ahead.

Savvy drivers are taking advantage of tools like Gridwise to plan for rideshare success!

4. Don’t arrive at 1:00 AM

Toward the end of our conversation, Jeff began to tell us a story.

The one thing you must understand about Jeff is that he is a people person and a great storyteller. I’m sure that has something to do with why he loves driving so much.

So during our brief time with him, he told us many great stories about his longest fares, shortest fares, and most interesting passengers, but one story that stands out is a cautionary tale about waiting at the airport late at night.

By leveraging Gridwise, Jeff was able to quickly optimize his driving strategy and increase his earnings. He checks Gridwise daily to help him plan out when and where he is going to drive and frequently checks Gridwise when he is about to end his shift.

Now, Jeff lives near Pittsburgh International Airport, so at the end of his shift, he’ll often check and see if there is a peak in airport demand. After driving a late night and noticing that there was a slight up tick in arrivals at the airport he decided to swing by.

He was a little late to the peak but still got in the queue which was moving quickly. After about 10-minutes he went from 20th to 3rd position. 5-minutes more went by and he was in 1st position.

5-minutes more went by and he was still waiting.

After 10 more minutes the lights turned off and our hero Jeff realized that there would be no more passengers ordering rides from PIA tonight.

Bummer.

Advice to new drivers

Jeff is doing really well as a rideshare driver these days. He’s currently driving part-time but has plans to start driving full-time in the near future so that he can focus even more on Friend of a Friend and his family. He credits rideshare services like Uber and Lyft for affording him this opportunity but is careful to note that he had to develop his strategy through trial-and-error in order to build a method that works for him.

His strategy includes driving airports, events, and avoiding traffic (he swore us to secrecy on how he does this), but this is HIS strategy that works well for him.

To be successful, a rideshare driver must think about their unique circumstances and develop a strategy and planning process that works for them. This could mean driving around airports, leveraging events, focusing on the rush hour, tackling the late night riders on the weekend, or any number of other strategies. As Jeff puts it “The key to success in the rideshare world is to treat this like your own business because that’s exactly what it is. Strategize and plan like the entrepreneur that you are.

“We couldn’t agree more Jeff.

Jeff uses Gridwise to optimize his driving strategy and double his earnings.

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