Liar’s Flights: How Fake Flights Mislead Passengers

direct nonstop flights
This flight does not exist

A little weekend rant…

Flying is irritating enough without misleading information getting in the way.  So how would you like to know that many of the flights listed on airport monitors around the county do not exist?  I call them “liar’s flights” and they exist only in the imagination of the airlines that fabricate them.

Contrary to what the image at right shows, there are no flights on any airline between San Francisco and Moscow.  I know this because I pay attention to these things and you can look it up too.  So… why is Moscow listed as a departure on an SFO airport monitor?

Simple – Delta airlines (and possibly SFO) wants you to be impressed with their international network so they created a flight out of thin air to put on the screen.  Perhaps listing exotic and numerous destinations on the screen makes the airline and airport look more exciting to prospective passengers.  Perhaps it’s a way of tricking people into thinking they’ve got a non-stop ticket which they don’t have.

What’s the explanation?

By tacking a continuous “flight number” onto two different flights, the airline can legally claim to fly “direct” from SFO to Moscow.   In this case, Delta flight 30 leaves SFO at 6:15am to New York*.   Then an entirely different plane continues “flight 30” to Moscow.  There are two flights, two planes, and a stop-over in New York.  it’s no different than stopping in New York before continuing to any other destination except that the two flights have the same number.

This appears to be a flight to Reno
This appears to be a flight to Reno

I arrived in Reno tonight on a direct United Airlines flight from Newark.  It stopped in Denver.  In this case the same plane actually continued to Reno but I was still required to get off with all my belongings, sit around for 30 minutes, then get back on the same plane and into the same seat.   I’m usually pretty good at predicting these shenanigans, but even I was duped when I received my boarding pass which listed only Reno as a destination.  Hilariously, in this case, Reno did not appear *anywhere* on the airport monitors so I had to use process of elimination to figure out I was flying to Denver – perfectly legal, and perfectly annoying.   I should have been given two boarding passes, starting with one to Denver.  Even in United’s online system you had to look into the fine print to see that a “1-hour stop in Denver” was part of the itinerary.

Why is this really a problem?

Aside from wasting space on the airport monitors this represents borderline false advertising. It’s just not right to tell people a flight is direct when it simply is not.    At least Southwest Airlines, notorious for “direct” flights that stop multiple times is very clear about their routings, lists the stops for you, and does not change planes on you for the same “flight”.  You can, in fact, stay on board during your stopover (this is the true definition of a “direct” flight – like a train that stops a few times).

Most other airlines have taken way too many liberties with the “direct” definition and it’s about time someone put some better clarity into the definition.  Do we have to pass a law?

Note one: I know it’s an entirely different plane to Moscow because the 757 sitting at SFO does not have the range to fly JFK to Moscow.  I also looked it up on Delta’s website.

Note two:  The monitor says KLM flight 5051 because KLM has a “code share” with Delta flight 30.  I like to call this the “liar’s badge”.  The flight is a Delta flight, KLM just gets to stick their badge on it because they have a special relationship with Delta.  The major airline alliances like to put as many airline badges as they can on these flights, again, to reinforce the impression of a massive international network.  This leads to more bizarre imaginary flights being listed, such as Korean Air flights from Minneapolis to Milwaukee.


Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

8 responses

    1. Sure, but then they might as well add London, Budapest and Papua New Guinea… the choice to include Moscow and no other connections is completely arbitrary.

      Unless… maybe there happen to be a tremendous number of people making the Moscow connection. but even then they really ought to put some kind of identifier on it.

  1. Perhaps you need to be more educated and understand the difference between a non-stop flight (one that makes no stops enroute to the destination) and a direct flight (one that makes one or more stops enroute to the destination).

    1. I think that was the point of the article. The airlines are taking advantage of people’s lack of understanding. The article seeks to change that. But why should the burden be on them? The airlines are being deliberately obtuse.

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