Passenger’s Reported “African American African Service Charge” Was Capital One Coding Error

I have to give a lot of credit to Capital One for owning up to this, and in the process teaching me something about their debit cards I didn’t know before.

An African American passenger, checking in for an American Airlines flight at a kiosk in Charlotte, got hit with what they saw on their statement as an ‘African American service charge’ for their checked bags. It was an awkward coincidence involving data matching and good intentions.

American Airlines says the charge was submitted properly and Mastercard is investigating. It didn’t seem like a single kiosk would have been programmed to identify an African American customer and identify their charge differently in any case.

Capital One has stepped forward to own the issue. They’ve “attempted to make contact with the customer to apologize” and shared that the issue was creating by coding on the side of one of their vendors,

Our investigation has shown that this technical issue is the result of a miscoding of a merchant’s name. It is entirely unrelated to any specific customer information.

At Capital One, we created a proprietary system that offers our customers greater details on all of their transactions. We do this in part by using technology that relies on an external database of business information.

We are actively investigating precisely where the technology misinterpreted the merchant data and we are correcting the issue.

Capital One tries to interpret what is sometimes confusing data that comes through with a transaction to help customers identify charges. They have a system in place with their debit cards that tries to translate abbreviations into a more complete description, and this uses a merchant list from an external vendor’s database.

I see vendor names all the time, or strings of characters with a charge, that I have to Google to figure out where they came from. Something like this can make charges clearer – most of the time. Or, there can be a vendor mismatch, like not seeing enough data come through on a transaction and matching an Americans charge to African American Services.

Capital One hadn’t been named in earlier coverage. They didn’t need to stick their neck up on this one. So I have a tremendous amount of respect for their reaching out to confirm that this wasn’t an American Airlines issue. It was a mistake on their end. And of course the mistake had nothing to do with the fact that the customer who noticed this is African American.

I didn’t realize Capital One had this feature, that it was limited to their debit cards and not currently set up with credit card statements, and they’re certainly going to revisit the programming to make sure the same thing doesn’t repeat. AI is great, of course, but like the human equivalent not yet perfect.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Bait and switch much Gary ? The title of this article should read ( African American charged a service charge by CAPITOL ONE !!! Has ZERO to do with AA.

  2. I can understand this now. Simple computer misinterpretation. AA somehow became African American. Happens a lot in the IT world.

  3. But how bad is it the customer would use a debit card for a travel (or really any) purchase?

  4. Wow what are the chances the passenger this happened to was actually African American.
    He has all the rights to be unhappy about it considering the circumstances.

  5. Wow Tim not only can’t you read the article, you can’t even read the entire title. All the initial coverage targeted AA hence the first sentence.

  6. @Gary – Your last sentence “AI is great, of course, but like the human equivalent not yet perfect.” doesn’t make sense in the context. Was “AI” (presumably, machine learning) responsible for this, or even involved at all? I see no other mention of the phrase in your article, and no link to a source that might have mentioned it there.

    As someone in IT, glad to hear this was a simple systems issue, and not something nefarious. 🙂

  7. More likely is that some White people or Hispanics or Asian also got the African American charge but ignored it.

  8. Funny true story. I once flew from Cancun to Charlotte about 15 years ago on USAir. Back then when you checked a bag, they automatically printed on the bag tag in small letters the station you checked it in and the agent sine of the employee who checked you in after it….a 5 letter code if you will. The agent was TS……You can figure out the rest. I thought it was funny, I didn’t get all triggered or all butthurt and I didn’t go and complain for media coverage or extortion. I wish I still had that bag tag.

  9. So… you’re not going to update your original post on this Gary?
    You’re a real stand up dude.

  10. @Steve – I did update the original post, though it took me a few hours to get there. Maybe ask ‘have you? are you going to? how come you haven’t?’ or any number of other things before jumping to insults? What does that say about you?

  11. Waiting with popcorn for a customer dining at White Castle (Pennsylvania) to get charged for White Privilege.

  12. Capital One uses this also for their credit cards. It causes us issues all the time with customers complaining about a charge that doesn’t match the name of the original place where they made the purchase. Good intentions but the implementation is horrible.

  13. I wonder if the passenger will now apologize to AA and will fly them again as she said she will never fly them again.

  14. @Gary

    It makes me someone who has read you for ~8 years, despite feeling that you approach stories involving black people with a high degree of skepticism

  15. This story is reported here differently than it was originally reported with posted pics of the fee. Two individuals paying separately received the same odd charge. Also, the customer said the charge was on their bank statement (NOT a Capital One card) and both the bank and American Airlines were pointing fingers at each other. Very interesting comments that most people will never admit they made to their only “best friend” who is black. Lol

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