Ben Edelman, Harvard Business School professor, moves from Chinese food to airlines

Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman is now directing his ire toward Sri Lankan Airlines. Photo: Andy Mitchell, via Flickr.

Harvard Business School Professor Ben Edelman is now directing his ire toward Sri Lankan Airlines. Photo: Andy Mitchell, via Flickr.

Remember Ben Edelman, the Harvard Business School Professor who lost it on a Boston-area Chinese restaurant he accused of overcharging him? As you may remember, Boston.com published menacing and self-righteous emails Edelman sent to the restaurant in which he threatened legal action.

"On reflection," he wrote to the restaurant at one point, "I suggest making my order half price - that's an appropriate thanks for my bringing this to your attention...."

The emails became public on Dec. 9, and Edelman was vilified for being so harsh on a family-run restaurant. Edelman responded that pricing transparency was an important issue for him. Usually, he said, airline pricing practices were the focus of his attention. He likes to protect consumers.

Two weeks after the Chinese food incident, we learned in a recent filing, Edelman was back at it. This time his ire was directed toward Sri Lankan Airlines, and he complained to the U.S. Department of Transportation in an official filing.

Three days before Christmas, Edelman was on the internet looking for fares at tiny regional airlines. From the filing, I don't get the feeling Edelman had any plans to go to Sri Lanka. He was probably just poking around to see what injustices he could correct. 

"On December 22, 2014, I used the SriLankan web site, srilankan.com, to quote ordinary paid coach round-trip travel from New York JFK to Colombo, Sri Lanka," he wrote to the DOT. "I found that the SriLankan site misrepresented [a] carrier-imposed surcharge as 'tax."

"Specifically, SriLankan provided the fare quote shown in Attachment 1," Edelman continued. "SriLankan quoted a “flight” cost of $954 plus “tax” of $587.60, for a total of $1541.60."

I think the professor has a legitimate gripe. A carrier-imposed surcharge is not a tax, and probably should not be labeled that way.

"It is unfair and deceptive to characterize a charge as 'tax' when it is set by a carrier of its own volition and need not be remitted to any government, airport, or similar authority," Edelman writes in his filing. "Such false statements provide consumers with inaccurate information as to the actual cost of their travel."

Edelman asked the DOT to investigate Sri Lankan. He also wants the airline to refund all money to customers the Sri Lankan inappropriately claimed was tax. 

Unlike the Chinese restaurant, however, Sri Lankan is well represented. Last week, the airline responded to Edelman's filing. Sri Lankan blamed its third-party booking system, Amadeus.  It said it was very sorry, and it asked the DOT to call off any investigation. 

"Upon receiving the Complaint, Sri Lankan reviewed its website and decided to take immediate action to revise the fare displays to provide additional clarification, particularly with respect to the surcharge item," the airline response reads. "Sri Lankan promptly notified Amadeus about this issue and requested that Amadeus immediately take any actions necessary to make the specific changes requested by Sri Lankan."

As of Jan. 15, Sri Lankan says it is no longer referring to these fees as taxes. The airline also says it is contrite. "Therefore, Sri Lankan respectfully submits that there is no need for the Department to initiate an investigation or enforcement proceeding in this matter," the airline told the DOT. 

What do we think? Did Edelman do a good deed? Is he absolved for the Chinese food incident? (He did apologize to the restaurant.) 

Want more Edelman fun? Check out a summary on his website of his 2012 fight with American Airlines over its pricing strategies. No one can accuse him not being thorough.