Planes, “Planes”, and Automated Fare Pricing

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

Let’s say that you wanted to get from Dayton, Ohio to central New Jersey, as friend-of-the-site Chris DiNoia recently wanted to do. On, you might select Newark as your destination, and get a result like this:

Flying into Newark

$353 is rather pricey for a one-way flight. Let’s check some other options. Philadelphia is about 30 minutes farther than Newark from central Jersey, and presumably you’re not a defenseless robot, so you should be safe there for a few minutes. Set Philadelphia as your destination instead, and hey, why not turn on the “Search Nearby Airports” checkbox?

Flying into Philadelphia

Hey, now there’s a better deal. You can get home for just $149! But hang on a sec. A close look shows that rather than Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), this flight winds up at “ZFV”, which is labeled as a “rail station”. How exactly is a plane going to land there?

Examine this flight, and you’ll see something bizarre:

Train Service
“NOTE: This is Train Service” is a truly amazing warning.

United Airlines is apparently code-sharing with Amtrak’s passenger railroad service to get you to Philadelphia. They’re also referring to Philadelphia’s 30th Street Rail Station (that’s what ZFV stands for) as an airport. Do you think the conductor announces that train as “United flight 3174”? Man, I hope so.

But the wacky train-instead-of-plane isn’t even the half of it. Take a look at the first half of this itinerary, and compare it to the original search. It’s the exact same flight!


This type of airline pricing nonsense is not entirely uncommon. Opting for the lower fare and then getting off at Newark even has a name, ”Hidden city ticketing”. Still, it’s not very often that you can save over $200 just by missing a train.

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