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Robot lawyer can automatically get you a cheaper flight

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

Entrepreneur Joshua Browder has made waves in the past by building a robot-lawyer called DoNotPay that has beaten hundreds of thousands of parking tickets, aided tenants in landlord disputes, and helped consumers sue Equifaxwith a few successes.

Armed with an infusion of over $1.1 million in funding led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, the part-time Stanford student (“My degree is a bit of a side project,” he says) is turning to empower air travelers by helping them leverage their own rights they may not know about to get cheaper tickets.

If someone buys a ticket and the price falls within 24 hours for that flight or other similar flights, DoNotPay is able to cancel the original flight and rebook at a lower price since all fights are legally refundable for a day.

It’s actually ridiculous,” Browder says. “Sometimes there are flights within 10 minutes, but one is $200 cheaper than the other.”

In some cases, thanks to a suite of other refundability rules, this price protection can work weeks later.

In addition to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, which outline consumers rights and dictate to some degree rules on air travel, airlines have their own contracts with their customers. These “contracts of carriage” outline the terms of your flights, including your own rights as a customer like what you’re entitled to in case of big delays, airport changes, flight time changes, and more.

But most consumers don’t exercise their own rights or hold an airline accountable to its end of the bargain simply because they’re unfamiliar with all these rules. A typical contract of carriage is often well over 20 pages long and there is a good chance this is the first you’re hearing about it. It’s usually amongst the fine print people skip.

“Even the most un-refundable ticket can be canceled at some point,” Browder says. Browder’s robot-lawyer app, DoNotPay.com, has been programmed with all the various reasons and loopholes for cancellation, 70 to 90, depending on the airline. For example, every ticket is eligible for cancellation under the 24-hour rule — you can make changes before it locks in — and if the National Weather Service issues a warning, a passenger is allowed not to fly and instead get a refund.

“The good news is that all these things exist,” says Browder of the FAA regulations. “The bad news is that the Trump administration is thinking of getting rid of these regulations, so in six months the opportunity may not exist.”

The Trump administration has pushed for two regulations to be scrapped for every new one implemented and supported privatization of the air traffic control system. Last year in a meeting with aviation leaders, he spoke of rolling back regulations. Browder and others believe the rollbacks would advantage the airlines, not the travelers and reasons for refundability could be in play.

How the app works

To sign up, air travelers go onto DoNotPay.com and enter their Gmail address (no other email addresses work right now). This is because Gmail’s API allows a third-party service like DoNotPay to have limited access to messages sent only from certain email addresses, in this case ones from online travel agencies and airlines.

Finding the flight information in a traveler’s flight receipts, the app cross-references the airline’s obligations for cancellation with actual potential reasons for cancellation as well as the prices of itineraries like yours, something it can access thanks to the APIs of online travel agencies, such as Expedia, Orbitz and Kayak.

If a lower price is found and there’s grounds for cancellation, DoNotPay will book the lower-price flight of the same ticket class — with its own money — and cancel yours.

DoNotPay has enough confidence in its system that it will not charge you if your flight doesn’t get canceled. When the flight is canceled and your refund is on its way, DoNotPay charges the traveler’s credit card, via Stripe’s payment network.

In addition to this price protection for certain flights, DoNotPay can offer you better flights, even if they’re not necessarily cheaper. If a flight surfaces that’s better than yours — different airport, shorter layover, fewer stops, better fare class — DoNotPay will text you if it can cancel yours and give you that one.

Anant Akash, a beta tester during the two-month testing period that ended this week, told Yahoo Finance that he had booked a flight out of Oakland, Calif., for around $200 on Spirit Airlines. He declined a slightly cheaper flight, but when DoNotPay offered him a flight out of San Francisco’s airport for $40 less and on Delta, an airline he likes better, he jumped.

DoNotPay texts a user if a better flight is available. The user can say yes or no.

“I got a [cancellation] email from Spirit and DoNotPay sent me a text with confirmation, with the name and flight deals,” he said. “DoNotPay charged me for $170 for the new ticket. It was all through text and pretty fast.”

If the user says yes, then the app will cancel the old reservation and rebook at the lower price.

Lessons from Equifax

Browder’s latest project for DoNotPay — this time with a revamped website thanks to the new funding — is the next step in his crusade to make the law work for all, not just those who can afford lawyers. For this project, he aimed to make it as automatic as possible, based on the lessons he learned from his bot that helped people draft lawsuits against Equifax.

“The bad things are that for consumers, it doesn’t provide true access to justice. To make consumers print out a PDF and go to court — It’s too much of a struggle. A lot of people didn’t even show up in court,” he said. “But when they did and they were prepared, they won their cases. The good things were that these sorts of rules and regulations, they stand up and can be enforced.”

With a team of two employees whom he pays (he does not take a salary), Browder has his sights set on “a big insurance project,” and wants to make it “fully automated.” While he is the first to acknowledge the current limitations of robot lawyers, his products show the value of public APIs and how organizing public data can be all it takes to give consumers a little more agency. In essence, this latest product merely shows a consumer public information that could save them money: their cancellation rights and other cheap flights.