Harvard Professor Who Went After Chinese Restaurant Files DOT Complaint Against American Airlines For…

Marian Wright Edelman is president and founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. She’s been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Albert Schweitzer Prize for Humanitarianism. She was a Macarthur Fellow and a recipient of the Community of Christ International Peace Award.

Her nephew, Harvard Professor Ben Edelman, continues in this grand tradition.

He’s perhaps best known for ordering food from a Chinese restaurant that hadn’t updated its website properly with new prices.

Last week, Edelman ordered what he thought was $53.35 worth of Chinese food from Sichuan Garden’s Brookline Village location.

Edelman soon came to the horrifying realization that he had been overcharged. By a total of $4.

If you’ve ever wondered what happens when a Harvard Business School professor thinks a family-run Chinese restaurant screwed him out of $4, you’re about to find out.

(Hint: It involves invocation of the Massachusetts Consumer Protection Statute and multiple threats of legal action.)

He’s also threated to take his complaints against a sushi restaurant to the state’s liquor control board since they wouldn’t honor his Groupon for their price fixe menu.

He joined Flyertalk three months before I did, in January 2001.

On Tuesday he posted there about a new Department of Transportation complaint he’s filed against American Airlines.

American discloses checked bag fees on their website. They disclose it with their ticket receipts. They even try to upsell you during the booking process to fares that have checked bags included. (The media covers checked bag fees, too, since consumers hate these fees so much.)

When you get an e-ticket confirmation email after you’ve purchased travel from American, the email contains this fine print:

He contends, though, that if you change your tickets then any subsequent email from American omits that crucial information about the checked bag policy that applies.

And, he argues,

Under DOT regulation 14 CFR 399.85(c), “all e-ticket confirmations … must include information regarding the passenger’s free baggage allowance and/or the applicable fee for a carry-on bag and the first and second checked bag”.

In the vast majority of cases consumers get more generous bag policies when their tickets are reissued. They aren’t being disadvantaged. They’re getting upgrades, where baggage allowances increase. The hypothetical customer not receiving disclosure of reduced baggage allowances is hard to even imagine.

Someone would have to change their travel to a ticket (such as an international one) where they won’t have to pay for bags to one where they do (such as a domestic one).

That person, it’s true, wouldn’t have received new fine print.

I would love to meet the person buying international airline tickets, canceling, rebooking a domestic flight instead and who doesn’t know airlines charge for checked bag fees. But would have read the fine print above and understood. I suspect this does not exist. Or if they do, they aren’t common enough that a regulation should address the situation.

We are talking about post purchase. Whether the fees are disclosed in the email or the consumer is informed at the airport it is the same fee. There’s not even a question of information that could have be used to make a decision about buying the ticket.

I am in no way an expert on 14 CFR 399.85(c) and will grant the Harvard Professor’s read for the purpose of this exercise. Let’s assume American is required to include this legalese in their emails. I’m not sympathetic to the argument that they should be.

The more information we have to sift through the harder it is to find what we need. Maybe American is supposed to include this snippet in every email, I don’t think anyone is really made better off by it. When you give everyone every piece of information they could possibly need, they see none of it.

Edelman appears to pretend he’s jousting at the windmills of consumer fairness, but could this possibly be the most important customer facing item to work on?

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. You don’t need to come up with a convoluted scenario like that….

    – I have the American Airlines credit card so I get free checked bags on AA flights.
    – I book an AA flight from Seattle to Chicago
    – Things happen and my ticket gets re-issued on AA’s partner Alaska for one of their Seattle-Chicago flights.
    – Since that flight is operated by Alaska and not American, I no longer get free checked bags.

  2. Gary, with respect, your arguments are weak. You argue:

    1. very few customers are adversely affected by changes in bag fee policies
    2. trifling legalese on e-tickets will distract customers from important verbiage

    As to (1), the situation may be more common than you imagine, as PeteyNice illustrates in a comment above. As to (2), if changes in bag fees affect a customer adversely, then it is clearly important, not merely trifling. At a minimum, the verbiage on bag fees should be included when a change of tickets reduces the allowance. I am okay with omitting the verbiage when a change of tickets preserves the original allowance.

  3. @PeteNice When exactly are you going to get re-issued onto Alaska? Usually it would be during irregular operations, after you’ve taken advantage of the free bag benefit.

    But there are certainly cases where you could rebook a ticket in advance onto an American codeshare on Alaska. Then what you describe would happen.

    How is someone disadvantaged by not having this fine print on their e-ticket receipt?

    Again, maybe American should do this just ’cause. And maybe the DOT will make them do it. But their failure to do it didn’t actually harm anyone.

  4. @Jason again how is it important, since we’re talking about post-purchase notification and not pre-purchase (where someone uses the information potentially to make their decision)?

  5. My contention is that everyone without status knows that they will be charged a bag fee in most case. And if they don’t then shame on them.

    This makes my case that they really need to give a test to anyone going to the airport. Where is the personal responsibility anymore?

    There are no guarantees in life or travel .

    And as for the large waste of time and our money that will go into this case shame on everyone involved.

  6. Unfortunately I can’t comment on the content of his post for fear of legal retaliation.

  7. And this is interesting to anyone … why?

    Very childish post. It reads like a high school rant.

    I don’t see that what he has done that’s wrong; the law is the same for everyone. It’s just amazing that someone as big as American would be so sloppy — that is the only thing even remotely interesting in this immature post.

  8. @ Ken — more people fly Southwest domestically than on any other carrier.

    You have failed your own test (bags fly free on Southwest).

    Teacher gives you an F.

  9. Nothing wrong with Ben holding the airlines accountable. Personally I hope he sues AA over their misleading claim about mileage save awards which don’t even exist in their system. We certainly can’t count on the government to hold these corporations responsible when they make false claims or devalue their frequent flyer programs without even providing a days notice.

  10. good that there are people like that – consumers get ripped off all the time, and we should all be this active about setting things right.
    It may seem like a small thing, but if the law says that all e-ticket communications have to mention the bag fees, then that’s what needs to happen. AA is breaking the law and they need to fix it, even if not a single consumer was ever harmed.
    By the way, plenty of people still don’t know about bag fees and change fees, as these are different from airline to airline. It outrages me that the big airlines do not prominently display the change fees next to the ticket price.

  11. Teacher You should get your fact’s straight before commenting on something you obviously are wrong about. See below facts from the International Air Transport Association.

    It is interesting or should be to all of us if the Government (us) spends millions of dollars to make sure you know you will have to pay for your bags.

    And notice how I said in most cases. I did not mention them as they do not honor there word. And If you don’t know what I mean look it up.

    American Airlines took the top spot in North America after its merger with US Airways. The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier handled 197.3 million passengers with 6500 daily departures.

    Delta carried 171.3 million passengers

    Southwest Airlines
    The granddaddy of low-cost airlines in the United States carried 135.7 million passenger

  12. @augias The DOT issued a notice of proposed rulemaking last may that indicated they want a set of fees (not change fees) disclosed in the manner you describe

  13. augias

    I said it before and I’ll say it again. People should be responsible for their own actions and not rely on some bloated government agency to save them if they are to slow to figure it out for them self’s.

  14. Well, the airlines including AA are always ready to invoke any nit of the law when it’s in their interest, I don’t see anything inherently wrong with holding AA to following the law when the shoe is on the other foot, even if it is a nit. How hard would it be for AA to program their system to include the language in re-issues?

    OTOH, it’s a shame this particular douche-baggy guy is the one pressing the matter and I’d rather see time spent on more important consumer-airline issues.

  15. Teachers have to so something during summer break I guess. I agree there are much better windmills like “fuel” charges, etc.

    Now you know why everything has to have a disclaimer.

  16. Edelman’s an interesting guy who over the years has put a lot of left brain work into chasing minor issues such as the one Gary writes about here.

    I have often wished (and a few times suggested to him) that he tackle an issue of substance, like Delta’s reward engine. No luck so far.

  17. Please please PLEASE, US government, protect me from my own stupidity. Allow me to continue living like a mushroom in the dark eating shit and have some evil corporation compensate me for my own idiocy.

    Personal responsibility is soooooooooooooo (HT: Rudi) mid-20th century.

    basta YA!

  18. Teacher Really?
    Pets traveling are subject to a $95 Pet Fare each way per pet carrier

    Effective for tickets purchased on or after December 15, 2012, for travel on or after February 13, 2013, the 3rd checked bag and any bag thereafter is $75 per piece. (was $110)

    Who pays for bags anyways? We don’t on AA or UA

  19. You may scoff at this claim, but I have tried for over a month to get a tax and surcharge breakdown following a change to a RTW ticket. In the days of paper tickets it would have all been there and clear, but with e-tickets you are at the mercy of the airline what they disclose in those confirmation e-mails and other places on their site. However, the DOT regulations still require all this information disclosed, but airlines like American are not in compliance and then when you request the information they stonewall behind the Tariff desk and telling you to trust them that they have calculated everything correctly.

    So on this, Gary, you are wrong, these little things matter considering the balance of power with the airlines. They are ready to throw the CoC at us when convenient, so let them at least meet the minimum requirements of law.

  20. It never ceases to amaze me how anti-intellectual people are (to always side against a Jd), and also how completely willing they are to take it in the rear (until it’s something very dear to them). This lawyer may or may not have personal issues, but I completely support his quest to right the wrong. Although it wouldn’t bug me much, the premise that chinese food is overpriced by “just $1” is exactly why they get away with it (malicious or not): it’s a time-tax to dispute it. That small businesses will actually benefit from Ben’s exposure. American is a different and larger beast, and being so, it’s much harder to take them to task. I’d personally be pissed if I gave a SWU to a friend and that friend still had to pay for bags.

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