The largest shuttle bus operator at Los Angeles International Airport has gone to court to thwart alleged unfair business practices by an upstart competitor.
Supershuttle of Los Angeles, with a fleet of 200 blue and gold vans, is charging that American Transportation Enterprises, operator of five vans, has stolen customers by mimicking Supershuttle's color scheme and by invading its state-designated service area.
Supershuttle filed a suit last week in Torrance Superior Court demanding that the rival firm repaint its Amtrans Airport Shuttle vans and keep them out of Supershuttle's service areas in Los Angeles and Orange counties.
A spokesman for the smaller company said Supershuttle is trying to crush Gardena-based Amtrans before it can get started. Amtrans lawyer Steve Neimand said the firm's vans don't resemble Supershuttle's and that incursions into the giant's operating turf were unintentional.
Neimand said such squabbling typifies the highly competitive airport transit field.
The two firms are at opposite ends of the industry.
Supershuttle serves 180,000 customers a month in Southern California, making it the leader among the 20 firms that operate locally. The company runs an additional 250 vans in San Francisco, Phoenix and Dallas.
Amtrans entered the market just a few weeks ago. Its service area is limited by the state Public Utilities Commission to southeast Los Angeles County and airline passenger terminals at Burbank, Ontario and LAX.
But Mitchell Rouse, Supershuttle president, charged that Amtrans violated its PUC permit by sending its vans outside its service area, which includes Artesia, Bellflower, Cerritos, Whittier and 15 neighboring communities.
Rouse said his vans followed Amtrans vans to prove they were not operating by the rules. "We have photographs of them picking up and delivering customers outside of their service area," he said. "They are taking essentially no trips to their real operating area."
Neimand said the company's inexperienced drivers made a few inadvertent trips outside its service area. "They are getting the kinks out," Neimand said. "There was some confusion. . . . That has absolutely stopped."
The question of van coloring may be harder to resolve.
Amtrans operates aqua-colored vans with heavy black window moldings and dome lights in front that display the vans' destinations. Supershuttle's vans are royal blue with identical window moldings and dome lights. Supershuttle claims that Amtrans tried to approximate its colors right down to yellow lettering on both firms' vans.
Rouse said Amtrans' tactics are disturbing even though the fledgling firm is not an immediate threat to Supershuttle.
"They are purposely masquerading as Supershuttle," Rouse said. "We have a trade style and business built up and we can't allow people to poach on us any more than McDonald's can. We're not going to stand for it."
Neimand said Amtrans vans are distinct: "We think the public will be able to tell between the two companies."
The coloring question is scheduled for arguments March 1 before Torrance Superior Court Commissioner Abraham Gorenfeld. Supershuttle has demanded an injunction ordering Amtrans to change its colors and is seeking damages.
Torrance Superior Court Judge Frank Baffa has reminded Amtrans that its PUC permit requires it to stay within its service area. He left the color and damage questions up to Gorenfeld.
The dispute is not the first between Rouse and Amtrans' owners.
The two sides fought last year over the names of taxicab companies they operate in the South Bay.
Gorenfeld ruled in December that some people could be "confused and deceived" because Amtrans operated taxis under the names Checker Cab and Yellow Cab of South Bay.
Gorenfeld barred the company from using those names because they are too similar to United Checker Cab and South Bay Yellow Cab, names used by Wilmington Cab Co., a firm in which Rouse is an officer.
Amtrans President John C. Vallone said he met with Rouse last spring, attempting to make peace between their firms. "We told him we would like to stop this fighting and compete like gentlemen," Vallone said.
Rouse denied that he is trying to close down his competitor, saying: "One more company does not make us or break us as long as they play the game fair."