Minneapolis-St Paul airport handled 37.6 million passengers in 2005 – some 103,000 every day. Presumably a lot of those arrivals and departures were by taxi, so it would surely, as described by Geoff Elliott on page one of The Australian on Monday, create “chaos” if three quarters of the city’s 900 cab drivers refused to pick up a passenger carrying duty free alcohol.

Elliott, sitting in his Washington office 1758 kilometres away from MAS airport, produced a graphic rewrite of a newsagency abbreviation of a story that originally appeared in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that described how about 775 of those 900 cab drivers are Somali and mostly Muslim whose religion prevented them from having alcohol in their cab.

What Elliott did not mention was that the one passenger quoted in the original story was referring to something that happened to her back in March. That’s right – something that happened not last week or even last month but six months ago. Nor was the airport spokesman Patrick Hogan quoted in The Oz with the information that there were on average only about three occasions a day when a cab driver refused to carry a passenger carrying alcohol. Not that this concerned the editorial writer who pontificated on Monday that what was happening at Minneapolis-St Paul airport was an indictment of multiculturalism everywhere.

That argument would have been stronger but for the fact that Mr Hogan suggested that there were perhaps other reasons than booze for cabbies not picking up passengers. He told USA Today of concern that taxi drivers might be citing religion to avoid short-distance fares. Now that’s an argument that anyone who has tried to get a cab to take them from Sydney international to the domestic terminal can understand! Perhaps Sydney should introduce the Minneapolis solution where they now force drivers who refuse a fare to go to the end of the line for waiting taxis. It is not a popular decision among drivers, Hogan says.

Nor will those drivers trying to use religion as an excuse to avoid short trips like the next potential change. Anti-alcohol cabs will have to put a coloured light on their cabs and the airport staff who supervise taxi departures will not call forward a cab with a coloured light if the passenger in the queue has a bag of duty free in their arms.

There could, of course, be another reason for the emergence of Muslim taxi drivers as an issue in Minneapolis. The local city council is currently engaged in a serious debate about deregulating the taxi industry. What better way of advancing the argument for more licences than to create a little hysteria that good old ordinary drinkers can not get a cab under the existing system?

Peter Fray

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