Harvard professor Ben Edelman's new target - Delta Air Lines

 Did Delta Air Lines misrepresent a surcharge as a tax? Photo: Delta Air Lines. 

Did Delta Air Lines misrepresent a surcharge as a tax? Photo: Delta Air Lines. 

Harvard Professor Benjamin Edelman is once again making a fuss about his favorite topic -- airline pricing strategies. 

You likely remember Edelman from his public shaming of a Boston-area Chinese restaurant. In a series of emails that went viral, Edelman accused the restaurant of overcharging him by $4. He happened to be right. But the emails were absurd. 

"I suggest that Sichuan Garden refund me three times the amount of the overcharge," he wrote at one point. "The tripling reflects the approach provided under the Massachusetts consumer protection statute, MGL 93a, wherein consumers broadly receive triple damages for certain intentional violations."

Edelman's real passion is making complaints with the U.S. Department of Transportation over airline pricing practices. In December, as I reported here, Edelman criticized Sri Lankan Airlines over its lack of pricing transparency. The airline apologized. 

In January, Edelman went after Delta Air Lines. Edelman and another man -- Jason Steele - told the DOT that they caught Delta incorrectly labeling a carrier-imposed fee called an "international surcharge. Instead of making it clear that this was a fee,  Delta labeled the charge as a "tax."

Here is how Edelman and Steele put it in legalese:

On information and belief, there is no “tax” of €383, €388, or a similar amount on this route. On the itinerary confirmation screen (Attachment 2), I clicked the link to “View detailed Charges” (s.i.c.), yielding the screen in Attachment 3. There, Delta admits that €282 of the “tax” is in fact “Carrier-imposed International Surcharge.” We thus conclude that Delta overstated the amount of “tax” by €282 per passenger on this route

Delta’s statement of “tax” is literally false. 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. Such false statements provide consumers with inaccurate information as to the actual cost of their travel.

In a response, Delta acknowledged that Edelman was right. It also said it corrected the mistake. Here what happened, according to Delta:

On November 15, 2014, Delta rolled out updates to the site. Those updates included the fare displays for tickets redeemable with miles from Delta's SkyMiles frequent flyer program. Those updates, unfortunately, resulted in the erroneous identification of certain charges as "taxes," when those sums included carrier-imposed fees, in certain unusual frequent flyer award-redemption situations.

For your reading pleasure, I embed Edelman's entire complaint here.