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Startup ride service ZIRO launches at Sonoma County airport

Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport put out the welcome mat for its third ride-hailing service on Tuesday, offering passengers an alternative to existing operators Lyft and Uber.

San Francisco-based ZIRO is just 10 ?weeks old, but launched at the regional airfield amid what the company's chief executive officer said was growing local demand from drivers and riders for an alternative to the dominant providers. The startup touts itself as a more environmentally conscious and less expensive ride service that offers a better deal for drivers.

“We're a socially responsible ride service,” said Santosh Sarma, ZIRO's co-founder and CEO. “We have a new model in which nothing goes to the company, and the drivers keep what they make. It's not fair to take money from these guys who are already struggling.”

Instead, ZIRO [ZY-roh] generates revenue through advertising shown on screens installed in driver vehicles that are used to entertain passengers with news, sports and children's programming. Drivers - or “captains” as the company terms them - are also eligible to receive a cut of the ad dollars, said Sarma.

In addition, ZIRO seeks to make its operations carbon neutral by committing to buy credits to offset its emissions. It also has partnered with international nonprofit WeForest to plant a tree after every fifth ride a passenger takes. Already, Sarma said, the company has donated proceeds for nearly 10,000 trees in the rural village of Kinesi in Tanzania.

ZIRO began service in San Francisco in September and has since expanded to San Jose and the East Bay, as well as Marin County.

Reaching each of the Bay Area's airports is critical to building ridership and awareness of the company, he said.

Otherwise the roll-out has been a low-key affair, relying mostly on a word-of-mouth campaign during an ongoing testing period.

ZIRO's focus on operating a green-focused business gives it a competitive edge in the market that could appeal to customers who are considering alternatives, said Sonoma County Airport Manager Jon Stout.

“As the climate change issue continues to grow and is highlighted, more people are looking for options that are offsetting their impacts,” said Stout. “I think that could become a big draw. From that standpoint, they have an advantage over the others.”

Uber, the nation's largest ride-hailing company, began operating at Sonoma County airport in May. It joined Lyft, also of San Francisco and the country's second largest ride service, which has offered service out of the regional airport for 3½ ?years.

Taxicabs continue to provide service at the airport, where passenger numbers are expected to hit 480,000 this year - an all-time high. The airport allots four parking spaces for taxis to wait for fares outside the terminal, and three spots for app-based ride-hailing companies to come and go with passengers.

So far, the popularity of Uber and Lyft hasn't created any conflicts over the designated areas for pickups, Stout said, but the number of spaces could be expanded if introducing another company into the mix creates a need.

The use of Uber has increased steadily since the company came aboard earlier this year, but not eaten into Lyft's position as the top ride-hailing service at the airport, he added - both to the detriment of taxicab operators, who continue to lose out in the competition.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com.

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