If I want to get back to my hometown, Buffalo, NY from Philly, I have three bad options.
The first is an 11–hour train/bus journey for $200. For comparison, 11 hours is also enough time to jet to San Francisco and back—with time to stop at the iconic Buena Vista for the best Irish coffee in the world. My second option is a one-hour flight from the Philadelphia Airport (PHL). The cost? Sometimes up to $500 roundtrip, which is more than the flight to San Francisco and the Irish coffee combined. The third option is a $120 flight on Frontier. The catch? I’d have an overnight layover in Orlando, with a carbon–footprint–maximizing path that would make Greta Thunberg woozy.
Granted, most people at Penn probably aren’t regularly flying to Buffalo (unless, like me, they happen to support the future
2024 2025 Super Bowl champion Buffalo Bills). But, the high cost of flying from PHL isn’t limited to that one flight path. It’s a trend. According to one list, which assessed the cost of flying out of major U.S. airports, Philadelphia is the eighth most expensive airport to depart from in the country.
And it’s only getting worse. Last month, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics released a report showing that the cost of flights out of Philadelphia had increased at the fifth highest rate of any airport in the country over the past year. These increases are especially jarring for students hoping to see family for holidays.
Adelaide Lyall (C '25) says she couldn’t go home to Portland, ME for fall break because flight prices were too high. “The best option for me to fly home would be to fly from Philly to Portland … and that flight is basically untenable. It’s between $400 to $600 both ways,” she says. “I tend to go home less [frequently] because of that.” She adds that flying home from Philly can sometimes run her double the cost of flying from other major East Coast cities such as New York, Newark, and Washington, D.C.
Philadelphia’s high prices stem from several factors. First, American Airlines has drastically slashed the number of flights departing from Philadelphia. Last fall, in the biggest reduction in any of its hubs, the company cut over 1,800 flights out of PHL. That decision has limited the number of options for consumers—and drives up prices as flights fill up. Second, Philadelphia is one of the biggest U.S. cities, but it’s not considered a mega U.S. airport. J.D. Power, one of the aviation industry’s leading analysts, classifies PHL as a large airport, which means it handles between 10 and 33 million passengers per year. That puts Philly in the same category as LaGuardia, Dulles, and San Jose Airport, but not in the mega–airport tier of airports like Newark and LAX (both of which handle more than 33 million passengers a year). As a result, prices out of Philadelphia, especially for international flights, are often higher than from comparatively larger airports. Sometimes that puts prices out of reach for students.
To compensate, some students have found creative ways to work around the system. Adrian Rafizadeh (W '26), from San Jose, CA, commuted to JFK and then caught an international flight to avoid the high prices out of Philly. His trip involved: getting from his dorm to 30th Street Station, a nearly two–hour train ride to New York’s Penn Station, a one–hour subway ride from Penn Station, and the 20–minute AirTrain to the JFK terminal. It saved him a couple hundred dollars, but added hours to his trip.
When going home to Portland, Adelaide spends almost the whole day traveling. “I’ve done a lot of random different traveling things,” she says. Sometimes, she takes the 10–hour train ride home to Portland. Other times, she flies into Boston, before taking a two–hour bus to Portland, and then an additional 30–minute drive home.
It’s not like PHL’s high prices are prompting better service, either. Last month, for the third year running, J.D. Power named PHL the worst of 27 large airports in the country. The survey weights six metrics, which include terminal facilities, airport arrival/departure, baggage claim, security check, check–in/baggage check, and food, beverage, and retail services.
Airport administration has promised infrastructure improvements to answer these critiques.
“At PHL, we continuously invest in one of our city’s greatest assets, our airport, to improve the guest experience. We know there is still much to be done, and we will continue to move the needle through substantial long–term investment to improve our terminals and key infrastructure,” says Atif Saeed, CEO of the airport, in an email statement to 34th Street Magazine.
There are some ways students can save money on trips out of Philly. When flying United, students can get a 5% discount by booking directly through the United mobile app. Other students sometimes rely on third–party travel agencies like StudentUniverse to book their flights. StudentUniverse offers cheaper prices to students, but it comes with the added risk of higher change/cancellation fees. Lastly, if students decide to commute to another airport to save money, they can use Amtrak’s 15% student discount, which is valid for any train trip.
I did find one student who likes the Philadelphia airport. Zeno Dancanet (E '26) is an aspiring pilot who uses PHL for his training flights. Zeno says that for him, PHL has been an ideal spot to learn—and that he actually prefers it to surrounding airports. “Out of everywhere I’ve been, which is almost all states, out of all the aircraft controllers I’ve talked to, I still think the Philly controllers are the nicest. It’s the New York guys that are really mean.”
Zeno’s airport experience probably isn’t the same as yours or mine. He walks through the private flight entrance, strolls through security without a wait, and engages in pleasant chit chat with his fellow pilots. Sometimes, he even gets free food. “They always have pretzels on weekdays. I love that,” Zeno says.
My takeaway: the next time I’m flying home from Philly, I’ll look into getting a pilot’s license first.