Rep. Lee Accuses Passenger of Racism

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Traveling during the holidays can be a hassle, filled with delays, mishaps, and extra layers of security to get through. But one woman is sharing a particularly bad experience: She says a member of Congress got her kicked out of her seat in first class.

Jean-Marie Simon, a 63-year-old attorney and teacher from Washington, D.C., was returning home from a trip to Guatemala purchased using her 140,000 miles on Dec. 3. According to Simon, on the final leg of her journey, she was bumped out of her first-class seat on United Flight 788 from Bush International Airport in Texas to Reagan National Airport in D.C.

“I said I wanted my seat, that I had paid a lot of miles for that seat, and that it was United’s responsibility to undo the seat assignment and return it to me, the person who had paid for it,” Simon wrote in a lengthy Facebook post detailing the event.

After an hour long weather delay, and just before getting on she saw a woman she didn’t recognize ushered onboard the plane by a flight attendant before everyone else. When Simon approached the gate, a United employee scanned her paper ticket and told her that there was no record of her in the system. This is despite Simon having a physical boarding pass for that flight.

“Why was there no receipt of cancellation? Why is there no record of that?” Simon told Yahoo Lifestyle in a telephone interview. Simon, who says she spent 140,000 frequent flyer miles on her trip, isn’t just a casual flyer. She regularly makes trips overseas and is well experienced with navigating the hectic ins and outs of airports.

“The reason I don’t cancel my flights is simple,” she said, “two reasons: First is the later you fly, the more likely you are to be on a crowded plane and, two, the weather builds in Houston.”

Her seat, 1A, was taken. After wrangling with the gate agents, who she says were very nice, they offered her a $500 voucher and a seat in the 11th row of the economy section. To make things more unusual, Flight 788, according to Simon, was not at full capacity. Whole rows remained empty for the flight, making Simon’s seat change all the more strange. “It was way less than packed, huge number of empty seats,” said Simon.

It was then that a man identifying himself as a Texas Congressman sat down next to her. Simon claims the man told her that he was glad she had made it on the flight and that Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee was the reason she’d been bumped.

According to Simon, the Congressman said, “Jackson Lee gives us all a bad name, it’s shameful,” and pointed out that the airport is in Jackson Lee’s district, Texas’s 18th Congressional District. Up until that conversation Simon said, she didn’t know who Lee was.

“I don’t live in Texas; I’ve lived in D.C. since 1997. I don’t even know who the senators (there) are,” said Simon. It’s worth mentioning that Rep. Lee has once again been named “meanest Congress member” in a poll ran by the Washingtonian.

Meanwhile, a technical delay was keeping the plane grounded. The cabin crew told passengers they could check with a gate agent about making other flight arrangements. Simon headed to the front of the plane, and seeing Jackson Lee in her seat, snapped a cellphone picture of her.

Later a flight attendant approached Simon and asked if she was going to disrupt the flight. Simon responded, “I just want to go home.” The flight attendant warned Simon that she could return with a security guard and have her escorted off of the plane.

United is denying that Simon was deliberately bumped from her seat or that her booking records were deliberately deleted or in any way altered.

“After thoroughly examining our electronic records, we found that upon receiving a notification that Flight 788 was delayed due to weather, the customer appears to have canceled her flight from Houston to Washington, D.C., within the United mobile app,” United said in a statement. “As part of the normal preboarding process, gate agents began clearing standby and upgrade customers, including the first customer on the waitlist for an upgrade.”

Simon has refuted this claim with a screenshot of the United website she shared with a Yahoo Lifestyle reporter that clearly shows only one inactive flight on her profile: a trip to Houston in August that was canceled due to Hurricane Harvey. A United official fired back by saying that the trip from Houston to D.C. would not appear as canceled as she ultimately did take the flight.

United bumps woman from seat
Photo courtesy Jean-Marie Simon

Internal data from United outlining Simon’s flight and boarding records shared with reporters at the Houston Chronicle in support of their claims could not be independently verified, and the airline did not respond to multiple requests for comment by our staff.

Lee released a statement Saturday, in which she repeatedly denied taking Simon’s seat and instead suggests the encounter was racially motivated. “Since this was not any fault of mine, the way the individual continued to act appeared to be, upon reflection, because I was an African-American woman, seemingly an easy target along with the African-American flight attendant, who was very, very nice.” Lee went on to mention she remembered hearing Simon make remarks to a flight attendant, and later snapping a photo of her with her phone. She remained unclear on exactly what these remarks were or how they were racist in nature. Rep. Lee must have incredible hearing, given the distance between seat 1A in first class and the 11th row of the economy section.

Simon rejects claims that race had anything to do with the dispute: “How can this be racially motivated if I can’t see who’s in my seat while standing at the gate? It could have been anybody, it happened to be her.” No witnesses have come forward to support Rep. Lee’s claim that Simon made racist remarks to either her or the flight attendant.

She goes on to say that she did not seek out reporters with her story, that they contacted her after her Facebook post began to go viral. In a perfect world Simon would like a written apology from United Airlines and her frequent flyer miles refunded. “This is not about me gaining anything. I just want to be made whole again,” she said. “I just want what’s fair.”

Simon has written to the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, to ask for redress of grievances. United Airlines has suffered a string of embarrassing customer relations gaffes over the past year, including the forcible removal of Dr. David Dao from a United flight in Chicago to make space for crew members heading to Louisville, Ky this past April. Video of that encounter went viral, and has led many passengers to avoid the embattled airline. We contacted Munoz’ office for comment on the story, but have not received a reply. We can only hope Ms. Simon has better luck eliciting a response, and that United’s New Year’s resolution is to treat all passengers as equals.

 

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