The Uber Airport Shenanigans

I’ve long suspected that Uber is doing something funny with the fare from and to an airport. I noticed this when I tried to multi-hop with my flat rate pass from Mountain View to SFO. This distance in a single UberPool trip would’ve cost about $30-40, but by strategically breaking it down to multiple Pool trips, I was able to take advantage of my flat rate benefits and only ended up paying $12 or so.

The interesting thing started happening during the last leg of that segmented trip. When I locate the pin to one of the terminals, Uber quoted me $22, or around $32 without flat rate coverage. This is almost $19 more expensive than my previous legs with equal distance. Something fishy was going on obviously. I moved the pick-up pin to somewhere besides the airport and waited for a quote again. Boom, $2.49 (the old flat rate). It was obvious to me that Uber is giving airport rides a special “boost.”

Last weekend, I decided to experiment with airport pickup at SJC after a trip to Irvine. From the airport to my apartment is about 12 miles. At the designated “App-based ridesharing” spot, Uber quoted me $46 after flat rate for “increased demand,” that’s almost $60 without flat rate discount. Bullshit, I said.

I moved the pin to the DoubleTree hotel next to the airport, which is a 3min drive away (about half a mile), the quote dropped to the normal $3.49. Not in a rush to get home, I decided to take a walk and hack this shenanigan.

SJC extends far and there’s a road named “Airport way” that cuts through the terminal buildings. I kept checking for Uber price as I walked along the road to see exactly where the special treatment ends. What I found was: as long as I was on Airport Way, the app showed 2.5x surge pricing at around $30-40. As soon as I made a turn to some other road, it dropped right back to $3.49.

The walk brought me a very interesting phenomenon. Along the street where pricing is artificially inflated, cars with Lyft and Uber signs literally lined up the street parking spaces and packed almost half of the road. Inside those cars are drivers swiping away on their smartphones and waiting for the next lucrative airport ride. It was quite a scene to take in: an entire street lit up by headlights and shiny Lyft (and sometimes Uber) signs, all waiting in the humming noise of idle engines. Every minute or so, a lucky prize winner pulls out merrily and heads for that 2.5x reward.

For me, however, it was a quite an awkward situation. Thinking I was about to game the system, my ride request was being rejected left and right, even Uber gave up trying to find a driver for me after a few tries. It’s understandable that once a driver sees a non-airport pick-up location, they would rather take the penalty for rejecting than giving up on that juicy surge pricing (and potentially longer trips) from the airport. But doesn’t that render this entire vicinity a Uber dead zone? What about the residents who live around this area? Will they be constantly treated as “second-class customers”?

I was able to get home finally by piggybacking on someone else’s airport-originating Pool ride. On my way home, the passenger I was pooling with clearly was nonplussed with the price she had to pay. She was chit chatting with the driver about how expensive airport rides were with a frustrated but suppressed tone. I sat quietly, looking out the cleanly wiped window at the faint lights as we flew past the sleeping houses.

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