Skyward Bound

That could be a medical problem,” Willie Shears says with a laugh as he pulls out of the Manzanita parking lot. “Usually it’s a man, but she is the loudest.” He’s referring to a spiky-haired, cowboy-booted woman snoring at inconceivable early-morning decibels and sprawled across two seats. He speaks from experience, since we’re on the Marin Airporter and he’s been driving this route (often on the early shift) for 23 years. A fateful classified ad in his hometown newspaper in Anchorage, Alaska, brought this former bookkeeper to California. At 56, Willie Shears looks about a decade younger thanks to his close-cropped hair, athletic build and quick smile. He’s been driving Marin travelers and commuters to San Francisco International Airport and back longer than any other current Airporter driver. Shears says everything in his world has always been about time. He’s a numbers guy.

“I’m an ex-world-class middle-distance runner. I did the 220 in 20.8 seconds and the half mile in one minute, 45.6 seconds,” he says, still proud. His dedication to beating the clock in 30 years of running is a fortuitous trait for a job where success is measured by timeliness. Shears’ conversation is peppered with figures and facts: “Once you hit S.F. State it’s nine minutes to SFO,” he says, then tells riders of a new airport pickup location that’s precisely 220 yards to their left.

Being on time is what the Marin Airporter has relied on to keep its more than 300,000 annual riders happy. William Melbern, who had a Marin-to-SFO limousine and taxi service, founded the company in 1975. He figured his business would be more efficient if he drove more people with a set schedule. The simple yellow school buses he started the company with have long since given way to the Aiporter’s iconic rainbow-emblazoned coaches.

“The rainbow decal was actually a homage to the Waldo Tunnel,” says Melbern’s daughter, Grace Hughes, who took over the company in 1984 following her father’s death. After 25 years as president, she now chairs the board of directors.

The Airporter has grown from its one-stop beginnings at the former Corte Madera Edgewater Inn to an intricately devised six-stop operation with 55 drivers, four mechanics and five full-time bus washers. Hughes and her father have built a company that employees aren’t quick to leave. Shears is the most senior driver, but all the executives have been with Airporter more than 20 years, including current president Randy Kokke, who has logged more than a quarter of a century there.

“If you took the top five companies in the world and how they treat their employees, this company could be way up there,” says Shears as he fixes his tie in preparation for a photographer. Besides tips and wages, drivers are also in an employee stock ownership program. “They have a big investment in making the company work right,” says Hughes. “The longer they’ve been here the more stock they have.”

Although Hughes can’t recall how much the original Airporter fare was, today it’s an even $20 each way (a dollar more to Hamilton). Successful over the years, the company saw its biggest revenue challenge post-9/11. “We went from a pretty robust operation to nothing the days and weeks after 9/11,” says Kokke. “No one was flying, but we made it through that, so the challenges we see now are easy to overcome.”

Shears has a bright outlook on his tenure at the Airporter. “No matter what’s happening, the company is still loyal to its employees,” Shears says. “The only change I’ve seen here in over two decades is that we’re getting older,” he adds before hopping off to help passengers at the United terminal get their luggage from the Airporter’s belly. As the riders file out and inspect each black bag Shears has unloaded, he touches his toes and does a short stretch.

“I started stretching when I picked up the early shift,” he says. “I get to work at 2 a.m. to relax, meditate and stretch before the first bus out of Hamilton at 4 a.m.—plus I like to have the bus warmed up to a nice 75 degrees, so that people aren’t freezing when they get on in the morning. They appreciate that sort of thing.”

Shears gets some regulars on his predawn shifts, especially flight attendants and airline mechanics, and even local celebrities like basketball great Jennifer Azzi have gotten a ride, but he seems to genuinely go out of his way to welcome and quickly assist each customer who boards. “I’m the one person without a plane to catch, but I want you to make yours” is his motto, he says.

He starts each trip with a quick, polite speech reminding passengers of the virtues of keeping cell phone calls short and sweet. And after 23 years, yes, he has a favorite lane. “It’s the second from the fast lane; that way you don’t have other drivers merging into you,” he says. “Which is good because we don’t stop on a dime like some people might think.”

No type of luggage surprises him anymore, he adds. Sure, he’s had skis, golf clubs and suitcases that weigh more than he does, but he’s also had “sick dogs and ugly cats” and a customer who would always bring “eight to nine boxes of chopsticks stacked nicely on four or five carts.”
The unexpected doesn’t faze him. In fact, for someone who deals with road rage, stressed customers anxious to make a plane and fearful flyers, he seems to operate in a Zen state.

“Yes, I’m very relaxed, but it’s a gift that you just wake up every morning,” he says. “Those who know me know me. I’m very simple. The key is to wake up and be happy,” he says with a smile. Then he’s off to help another line of arriving passengers onto the bus for the ride home.