Vengeance for airline passenger

Marketplace Staff Jul 5, 2010

Vengeance for airline passenger

Marketplace Staff Jul 5, 2010


Bill Radke: So, we lost the free meal, and we’re losing free checked luggage. Most airlines now charge you to check a bag, even if they lose your bag. Charles Wheelan didn’t appreciate that, and he decided to do something about it.

We first met Charles in May after he sued United Airlines. So let’s see how that turned out. Hello again, Charles.

Charles Wheelan: Hey, good to be back with you.

Radke: So first the back story. Many of us have had an airline lose our luggage. Few of us have sued the airline over it. What happened?

Wheelan: Well, I don’t like the baggage fees any more than you do, but I was particularly irked that I paid my $25 and then the bag didn’t arrive — one week, two weeks, five weeks later. So I sought justice, and in an inspiration, I filed suit in New Hampshire district court against United for $25 to get the bag check fee back.

Radke: Even though the cost of filing the claim was about $50?

Wheelan: Yes, because I felt like I needed to do something. After five weeks, I hadn’t gotten through to anybody, nobody was calling me back and it just gave me a sense of empowerment.

Radke: But Charles, spending $50 to hopefully get $25 back, that makes no economic sense, sir.

Wheelan: Well, we would’ve thought that 25 years ago, but there’s actually been a breakthrough in the discipline. And what we’re now learning is that vengeance is more rational than it would appear. And vengeance is technically doing something that hurts yourself, but it also hurts somebody else and makes you feel good in the process.

There’s an evolutionary benefit to that. Many of society’s endeavors — whether you’re hunting woolly mammoths or doing a group study project — involve everybody pitching in. And if somebody doesn’t do their part, we need to punish them to facilitate that collective action, so that we can all work better together in the long run.

Radke: So how did the suit turn out?

Wheelan: By coincidence, I wrote a column about my lawsuit, because I’m a columnist for Yahoo! Finance. And shockingly, even though it had been six weeks since the bag disappeared, the bag was discovered the next day.

Radke: Shocking.

Wheelan: Isn’t that amazing? It’s quite a coincidence. So the next day, it is sent FedEx, that I get my bag back. And then your piece aired over the weekend all over the country, and then United Airlines called me on that Monday or Tuesday. Now, perhaps that was coincidence, I don’t think so.

Radke: No, clearly, Marketplace played a vital role.

Wheelan: This is justice. You are part of that process. You set the wheels in motion.

Radke: We’re part of the cycle of vengeance. So you’ve got your bag back. You’ve been made whole.

Wheelan: Well, I didn’t get my toiletry kit back, but you know, I can live without toothpaste and other things like that.

Radke: Your toiletry kit was missing?

Wheelan: Yeah, go figure. There’s something about my toothpaste and shaving cream that must be particularly valuable to somebody.

Radke: This calls for more vengeance.

Wheelan: No, I’m going to let this one lie. At some point, it’s got to become irrational. I’m done.

Radke: Charles Wheelan is a professor of public policy, visiting professor now at Dartmouth College. And he’s written a book called “Naked Economics.” Thank you.

Wheelan: Thank you for having me. Thanks for helping to get my bag back.

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