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Monday, 24 December 2012

My Jakarta: Blue Bird Taxi

There are 25,000 Blue Bird taxis in operation across Indonesia. (EPA Photo)
There are 25,000 Blue Bird taxis in operation across Indonesia. (EPA Photo)
When the late Mutiara Siti Fatimah Djokosoetono founded the Blue Bird Group in 1972, she was reminded of a tale from her childhood. 

Once upon a time, as these stories tend to begin, there was a little girl who lived in poverty. She endlessly prayed and hoped that she would someday live a better life. 

One night, a voice in her dreams told her to look for a blue bird that would bring happiness to whoever found it. The journey was long and difficult, yet the little girl persisted, believing that if she worked hard enough, she would find her happiness. In the end she found the bird and lived happily ever after. 

Mutiara let this story become the inspiration for her business, which marks its 40th anniversary this year. Like the girl in the story, Mutiara, who passed away in June last year, worked hard to build the business that has become a household name across Indonesia. 

Today the company is run by her third son, Purnomo Prawiro. 

“Our first attempt at running a taxi service started in 1965 with only two cars,” Purnomo recalled. 

The two sedans, an Opel and a Mercedes, were gifts from the Police Academy (PTIK) and the Military Law Academy (PTHM), where Mutiara’s husband had given years of service before his death. 

Forty years later both Mutiara and her husband are gone, but their legacy lives on in the 25,000-strong fleet of Blue Bird taxis across Indonesia, with 15,000 of those assigned to Jakarta’s busy streets. 

Purnomo, now the chief executive, said that Blue Bird received around 19,000 calls a day, outnumbering the number of taxis on the streets. That is why Purnomo is looking to expand the fleet. 

Blue Bird is well known for its safety. One reason for this is the company’s stringent screening process for drivers. Besides the obvious capabilities and experience in driving, Blue Bird drivers are also required to be between 23 and 50 years of age, pass a psychological test and, according to company policy, must not have any tattoos. 

Driver Tony Setiawan remembers when he joined the company six and a half years ago. 

“We had a training camp for two days for all new recruits,” he said. “The entire preparation lasted for three months before we were acknowledged as fully fledged Blue Bird drivers.” 

Tony said that around half of Blue Bird’s drivers come from outside Jakarta — he himself comes from Cikampek in West Java. Since the work schedule allows drivers to choose their work-days and off-days between two different shifts, Tony only goes home after several days of work. While in Jakarta, he stays in one of the dorm-like buildings provided by the company. 

Trifatma, one of the rare female taxi drivers in the city, agrees that working for Blue Bird is a comfortable arrangement. The 45-year-old grandmother joined the fleet a year ago, despite initial resistance from her children. Working full time, Trifatma has been able to make enough money to send her daughter to college in Malaysia. 

The pay system includes commissions, so drivers get a percentage of the daily fare plus a bonus for if they exceed a certain amount in fares. 

Trifatma says getting the bonus is relatively easy with all the resources Blue Bird has to assist drivers. 

“Blue Bird has pools at almost every hotel and mall,” she says. “And that’s not to mention the operators, who will assist you in finding passengers in your vicinity who have called for a taxi.” 

Blue Bird charges a higher fare than many of its competitors. Purnomo said that regular Blue Bird taxis charge Rp 6,000 (65 cents) for the first kilometer and Rp 3,000 for each subsequent kilometer. While idling in traffic, there’s another timer mechanism that charges Rp 30,000 per hour. The rate doubles for the more luxurious Silver Bird line. 

Making good use of the support system, both Trifatma and Tony agree that taking home a total of Rp 5 million ($520) in commissions each month is realistic. 

Tips from passengers also add up. Trifatma said she once received a Rp 70,000 tip for calmly listening to one troubled passenger, a concerned wife who used the taxi to trail her husband, who she suspected was having an affair. 

One lesser known aspect of Blue Bird taxis is their onboard security system. Have you ever noticed the small, amber-colored bulb on the roof of each car? When a crime occurs, the driver can activate a secret button that will turn on the bulb as a visual emergency signal, initiate a silent call to headquarters and activate a recording system so that the conversation in the taxi can be heard live from headquarters and recorded for court evidence, if necessary. It also transmits a GPS signal for headquarters to trace and request other Blue Birds in the area to follow the car and report back. Tony said that drivers have a secret code to tell headquarters whether the situation is still under control or if it has escalated into a dangerous situation that needs immediate assistance. And for drivers who help their friends in such a scenario, Purnomo said there is an award called the “Blue Knight” for their courage. 

Driving a taxi may sound like cheap work — a label given to almost every profession that doesn’t require academic qualifications. But next time that thought pops into your head, consider that there are proud taxi drivers out there who make jokes about how so-called high-class office executives prefer to ride taxis with their friends so that they can split the fare.
Credit: Antonny Saputra/Jakarta Globe