The Infrequent Flyer Meal Program

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” That quote — the origins are unknown — has been a staple rule of economics for nearly a century. If, say, you go to a hotel which offers a complimentary continental breakfast — putting aside the fact that breakfast isn’t lunch and vice versa — the saying applies nearly perfectly. Yes, the breakfast is “free,” in the sense that you don’t actually have to give the hotel your credit card or any extra cash right before or after you dine. But the price of your meal — or the average price of one, at least — is built into your overall hotel bill. Just because you’re not paying for the breakfast when you eat it doesn’t mean you’re not paying for it when you check out of the hotel.

So, rule number one: There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Sorry to disappoint, but it’s true. But there’s good news — there’s a rule number two: There is such thing as a fully-refundable first class plane ticket.

And sometimes, it comes with a free lunch. Or a few hundred of them.

China Eastern Airlines is one of the largest airlines in China, serving over 200 airports via its fleet of more than 400 planes. While its main hubs of operation are the two international airports in Shanghai, China Eastern considers a handful of other destinations to be their secondary hubs. Among those second-tier hubs is Xi’an Xianyang International Airport, the largest airport in Northwest China. Xi’an International serves roughly 20 million passengers annually, according to Wikipedia. But whether that includes the customer in the following story is anyone’s guess.

At some point in early 2013, our hero — his name wasn’t reported — bought himself a first class ticket on a China Eastern Airlines flight to parts unknown; his ticketed destination wasn’t reported either. But where China Eastern thought he wanted to go wasn’t all that important anyway, because the man never intended to go very far. According to a Chinese-language newspaper out of Malaysia (called Kwong Wah Yit Poh if you’d like to look it up), and as relayed by the New York Post, the man was on a round-trip junket to the airport. And while he was there, he was going to eat lunch.

The man’s plan focused on the VIP area for ticketed first class passengers. The VIP area provided free food and drinks to any customers present. By booking a first class flight, the man was given entry to the lounge — and therefore able to eat to his heart’s content, all on China Eastern Airlines’ dime. Again, the price of that meal was almost certainly baked into the price of his ticket. But the man wasn’t going to eat just one meal. He was going to eat a lot of meals. As Yahoo! News reported, after eating lunch, he’d “rebook his ticket (for free) for a flight on the following day” and then go home. The next day, he returned to Xi’an International, entered the VIP lounge on his rebooked ticket, ate another free lunch — and then rebooked his ticket for the next day. And so on and so forth. At no point did he ever actually get on a plane.

The man repeated the process an estimated 300 times before the airline figured out what he was doing. But there wasn’t much they could do about the eaten meals, as the man hadn’t really done anything wrong or illegal (even by the Chinese government’s standards). All they could do was prevent him from entering in the future, which apparently is what the airline did. The man responded the only way he could — he asked for his fully-refundable ticket to be refunded. The airline, which dismissed his stunt as a “rare act,” reportedly complied.

Bonus Fact: At times, your employer may actually provide you with a free lunch — maybe the whole department orders pizza or something on the company credit card, for example. But in 2013, the IRS began wondering if the free meal on the table was compensation under-the-table — that is, whether the food should be considered income earned by the dining employee. The reasoning, as TIME noted, is that “it’s not fair for cash compensation to be taxed while perks like free food aren’t,” and besides, the IRS wants what it’s due. Still, don’t expect an audit over the issue — accounting for what one ate (does pepperoni get taxed at a higher rate than eggplant?) is very cumbersome and, so far, not bothered with too often. But that may change soon: according to a report from VICE last month, the IRS is investigating the issue, and depending on the outcome of that inquiry, employers may be required to report free lunches to the IRS going forward.

From the Archives: Dabbawala: Make your own lunch and have it delivered to work by super-efficient bicycling delivery services. But only in India.

Take the Quiz: Name the seven Hobbit meals. None are free, especially when one does not stop until nightfall on their way to Rivendell.

Related: “Economic Literacy: What Everyone Needs to Know About Money & Markets” by Jacob De Rooy. A very helpful book if you’re about to do very poorly in an intro to economics class, at least in my experience a decade or two ago. 16 reviews, 4.9 stars on average.