Mike Hawk has been sitting in his cab, standing beside it or leaning on it for more than an hour now. He's read a fishing magazine and perused a German novel.

And still two dozen other taxi drivers are in front of him, each waiting for his shot at the next would-be passenger to stroll out of Terminal 1 at Salt Lake City International Airport.For Hawk, the wait is hardly worth it. When he does pick up a passenger, the trip to a downtown hotel will average $15.

For owner-operators like Hawk, and drivers who lease cabs from one of Salt Lake's three taxi companies, a 14-hour shift often yields a profit of just $50 or $60, if that.

The meager earnings have many local cabbies working seven days a week to make ends meet. Veteran drivers and the owners or managers of City Cab, Ute Cab and Yellow Cab say numerous conditions have conspired to produce the worst economic climate for city taxi operators in 30 years: increased competition from shuttle services, a decrease in convention business, a 75 percent increase in the number of cab licenses approved by the city since 1995, a mild winter and poor ski season, road construction and now soaring gas prices.

"It has been going downhill the whole time I've been doing it. It is no longer possible to make middle-class wages," said Hawk, 54, a veteran truck driver who switched to cabs five years ago.

Requires Adobe Acrobat.

"I kind of enjoy doing this but not to the point of going to the poorhouse over it. My heart goes out to these guys who are young men with kids and a lot of bills to pay."

And women. Like Hilda Cairo, a single mother who supports a daughter and a grandchild. Cairo said she can work 14 hours a day, seven days a week and still clear only $200 in profit.

By law, drivers can operate their cabs for no more than 14 consecutive hours in a day and must have a nine-hour break between shifts. Several cab drivers waiting in the airport line admitted they break that law. They have no choice, they said.

Tracey Higley owns his own taxi but pays about $1,000 a month to Yellow Cab for his affiliation. He said his tax return last year showed an income of just $2,400.

"You don't even want to know what I make. No one would believe I work so cheaply," said Joel Wright, a driver for City Cab.

"Five years ago, we could gross $300 a night sometimes. But now you're lucky if you have a $100 gross. And if you have to give all your money to the company, you can't make anything."

But attorney Bruce Baird refuses to play the fiddle for city cabbies.

Baird represents Jack Gupta, who has applied for a license to operate a fourth cab company in Salt Lake City. The city will give Gupta an answer following a scheduled June 21 hearing.

"If they're not making any money driving taxi cabs, they should get out of the taxi cab business," Baird said.

Cabbies waiting for fares at the airport freely admit they could make more money working at fast-food restaurants. Many, however, have an investment in their vehicles, feel they are too old for a new line of work or simply can't accept that the profession they enjoy has become unprofitable.

Still, many drivers are bolting from the ranks.

Sam Raafati, a manager for Yellow Cab, said a dozen of the company's taxis are parked for lack of operators.

Ute Cab owner Dennis Anderson said some of his drivers left for seasonal work. One went to work on a fishing boat in Alaska.

"They tell me they're not doing well at all," said Anderson, whose drivers lease most of their cabs from him at a flat rate. "I've got one driver that owes me money but I don't push him. I can't do it. You just have to roll with the punches."

Higley and other drivers say the upcoming 2002 Winter Games are largely to blame for the doubling of taxi licenses that has placed so many cabs on the streets and diluted drivers' profits.

"We are worried about why we can't make some kind of a living at it, and they (the city) are continuing to regulate us out of business, adding more cabs," Higley said. "We're just not making it and we need some help."

City officials say the expansion in cab licenses has been permitted only after extensive public hearings and evidence provided by the business community that more cabs are needed, particularly during large conventions and other peak-traffic periods.

None of the economic blows, alone, has been a knockout. But one jab cabbies consistently mention is a lack of convention business, specifically, a lack of big conventions. According to the Salt Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau, convention attendance dropped from 140,422 in 1998 to 104,933 in 1999.

And when conventions are in town, the cabbies say, organizers sometimes bypass cab service by contracting directly with shuttle bus companies to transport attendees to and from the airport. And now a new company, Utah Shuttle Service Co., wants to move convention-goers between hotels and the Salt Palace Convention Center.

In addition to the legitimate battle for customers, cab drivers accuse the shuttles of taking business from them illegally. City ordinances prohibit Shuttle Express and the others from transporting walk-up passengers. Only those who make reservations prior to landing are allowed to use shuttle vans.

Shuttle Express marketing director Trent Woolston said his company disagrees with that policy and does violate the rule -- but typically no more than once a day and usually when a regular customer who took the shuttle to the airport simply forgot to make a reservation for the return trip.

"We would like to see it made so that customers who arrive in the city can make their own choice," Woolston said.

Cabbies also accuse drivers of free hotel shuttles of accepting tips for giving rides to downtown destinations other than the hotel.

Cab drivers say city and airport officials turn a blind eye to the alleged illegal activity.

"When we get a complaint, we investigate it," countered Alison Gregersen, the city's acting director of Community and Economic Development. "We really do try and make sure they (shuttle companies) are obeying the letter of the law."

In recent years the city has revamped its ordinances governing taxi cabs. A change made last year makes it legal for pedestrians to hail a cab and allows cab drivers to cruise the city looking for potential passengers.

"We try to make it fair," Gregersen said of the city's effort to keep shuttles and cabs from driving each other out of business. "We want to make sure we have an adequate transportation service available for people who come to Salt Lake."

The city granted a 10-cent fare increase last year, allowing cabbies to start the meter at $1.60 and charge $1.60 a mile.

All three cab companies have fewer taxis on the road than allowed, but drivers say their bosses are relatively unaffected by the current crisis since they charge the same lease rates and fees.

While some drivers say the owners can be lenient on lease payments, others say the practice amounts to indentured servitude since the driver cannot leave the employment situation until the debt is repaid.

There is no union to represent the drivers of the 268 cabs on Salt Lake's streets. And the idea of forming a cab drivers' association remains just that.

About the only thing cabbies say they have to hope for is a snowy winter that would bring skiers by the droves. The challenge, they say, will be surviving until then.

E-MAIL: zman@desnews.com