A teacher has accused a prominent Democratic Congresswoman of stealing her first class seat on a United flight from Houston to Washington, DC.
Jean-Marie Simon was traveling back from Guatemala to Washington, DC via Houston. Upon boarding her connecting flight to Washington National, her boarding pass double-beeped. After further investigation, a gate agent informed her that her seat had been given away, later claiming she had cancelled the flight herself using the United mobile app.
A United Gate Agent Threatens Her
She protested, claiming she never cancelled her flight. The gate agents offered her a seat in economy class, but she demanded her first class seat back. It then turned ugly. From her account on Facebook, Simon claims the gate agent stated a passenger had been upgraded and there was nothing he could do to reverse it.
He said I could “stand here and argue” and miss the flight or book another flight with another airline, meaning that I would lose my first class ticket and pay for a second one. I said I wanted my seat, 1A, that I had paid for and selected in early December and one that the upgraded passenger in 1A was now freeloading, literally at my expense. He said that couldn’t happen because they couldn’t “disrupt” what was already done. He offered me a $300 voucher. I said I wanted $500 and a free meal. He said, “And I want a Mercedes Benz, but that’s not going to happen.” Then he invited me to complete a United online survey when the flight was over.
Wanting to get home, she eventually relented and boarded her flight. She found herself in Economy Plus, where an unnamed Texas Congressman who had observed the situation sat down next to her. The man leaned over and stated–
You know what happened, right? Do you know who’s in your seat?” I said no. He told me that it was Jackson Lee, a fellow U.S. congresswoman who regularly does this, that this was the third time he personally had watched her bump a passenger. Then he asked me if I knew whom Jackson Lee represents in Congress: Bush International Airport in Houston.
It All Starts to Make Sense
And then it all began to make sense for Simon.
While waiting to board, she had noticed a FA came up to a Jackson Lee in line with her and stated, “Let’s get on”. This was before priority boarding for members of the military or Global Services members.
The flight encountered a hydraulic delay and passengers were invited to disembark. Simon snapped this picture of the Congresswoman on her way back on the plane:
Moments later, a FA sat down next to her and asked if she would be a “problem” on the flight. Simon said no but received a stern warning from the FA and justification for her lost upgrade.
The flight attendant said that security would remove me from the plane if I “created problems.” I said I just wanted to get home. I said to her, to paraphrase, “Why should someone get a seat I paid for?” She responded that the person had Global Services status.
She dispatched a message to United on Facebook and received a phone call the next day, apologizing. But Simon doesn’t want a verbal apology from a call center agent: she wants a written apology from United and has not received one yet.
United Responds: Simon Cancelled Her Own Reservation
In a public statement, United blamed the problem on the passenger cancelling her own flight via the mobile app.
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. 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 dismisses this, stating, “It’s just impossible to suspend disbelief and swallow that story that I cancelled my flight.”
Passive Aggressive Congresswoman Feigns Racism
Congresswoman Jackson Lee released a statement concerning the event on her own Facebook page. Here’s the full statement.
I am disappointed in having to respond to this accusation, but I believe transparency is very important. Unfortunately, it looks like Grinch is trying to steal the spirit of the holiday.
Last Monday, I arrived at the airport to catch my flight to Washington to continue my fight to get Hurricane Harvey funds back to Texas and other hard hit areas, along with funding of the Children’s Health Insurance Program and of course, trying to stop a tax bill that was going to cause millions of Americans to lose their health insurance.
After receiving my boarding pass, I boarded the plane in the normal process. I did nothing wrong. I asked for nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary and received nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary. I proceeded to take my seat and work on legislative issues on my way to Washington.
Although I was not involved, I observed a disruption by an individual walking back and forth in the cabin. I could overhear her speaking with a flight attendant (an African American woman). I saw the gate agent go to the seat of the individual who was walking back and forth before we took off.
I later came to understand that the individual had canceled her own flight. However I had nothing to do with that.
I noted that this individual came toward me and took a picture. I heard later that she might have said “I know who she is.” 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. This saddens me, especially at this time of year given all of the things we have to work on to help people. But in the spirit of this season and out of the sincerity of my heart, if it is perceived that I had anything to do with this, I am kind enough to simply say sorry. I understand the airline is working to address the passenger’s concerns. I am glad of that.
But as an African American, I know there are too many examples like this all over the nation. I hope one day, we will accept our collective diversity. Happy Holidays.
My Take: Shenanigans Virtually Guaranteed
Back in my White House days, Congressman Sheila Jackson Lee always cracked me up. She routinely decried President George W. Bush, but would also position herself to give him a huge hug as he entered the House Gallery to deliver his State of the Union address each year.
She’s a gregarious person who is charming if you’re on her good side. But she’s also known as one of the worst people on the Hill to work for.
Perhaps that is neither here nor there and we should stick to the issue, but it paints a picture of her character. I’m disgusted by Jackson Lee’s statement. She claims she is a victim of “racism” without any basis: the passenger did not know who took her seat until after she boarded the aircraft. It undermines all her credibility.
Furthermore, she states, “I asked for nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary and received nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary.”
Jackson Lee’s Checkered Past
Here’s the thing: she routinely demands special favors and flouts rules for her own selfish advantage.
Lee had come to expect other deluxe perks not always available in Continental’s non-hub cities, Cox explained.
She then described an incident the previous month when Lee boarded a flight at National, and found the menu did not include a seafood special she had wanted.
“She screamed at the top of her lungs at least a minute,” Burruss quotes Cox as telling her. “She embarrassed the flight attendants and the passengers in first class. And she embarrassed herself.”
According to Burruss, Cox claimed Lee declared, “Don’t you know who I am? I’m Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Where is my seafood meal? I know it was ordered!”
…According to Burruss, Lee routinely demands three first-class reservations on the carrier for Monday and Tuesday when she is in Washington, and then decides at the last minute which one to use. The airline was fed up with the arrangement, and began reducing the reservations to coach class, a development that infuriated Lee when staffers told her they could not guarantee her first-class seats.
That’s not a very sterling testament to her character, especially in regards to flying first class on this particular route.
I fear Simon gets it right–
They put Jackson Lee on the plane and then tried to blame it on a late incoming flight, another airline, my cell phone, united.com, Global Services, and on everybody but the United employee who deliberately erased my seat, my ticket, and my name from the system in order to accommodate a member of Congress who repeatedly bullies her way into favored status.
As bad as United’s technology can be, its mobile app is actually excellent–by far the best in the industry. And Simon is no fool…I highly doubt she accidentally cancelled her final segment on her app…it’s not like there were any options to get her home earlier.
But even if there was a snafu on the app, the gate agent admitted that Lee (and perhaps other passengers) were upgraded. The appropriate solution was to downgrade one of the upgraded passengers and put Simon back into her original seat. I’ve seen that happen so many times.
The fact that it did not happen here makes me much more willing to buy into Simon’s side over United’s or Jackson Lee’s.
My Work with the United Airlines Congressional Liaison
One more component to this story. I worked for a California Congressman named Duncan Hunter on the Hill in 2005 and 2006 (not to be confused with his son, who has now taken his seat). Every weekend he would fly home to the district on United, since only United flew from Washington to San Diego nonstop.
He would buy government tickets (YCA / full-fare Y) and play the upgrade game every weekend. But it wasn’t much of a game: I would get on the phone and hassle the Congressman’s personal United rep to clear the upgrade…and he would.
It’s the nepotism of Washington politics. United wants to keep politicians happy. And I can certainly understand why it would want to keep Jackson Lee happy, whose district includes Bush Intercontinental Airport.
Even so, throwing someone out of first class for a Member of Congress is disgusting to me. I can picture her aides demanding United find a way to get her into first class on a sold out flight. Can’t you?
I’m speculating that there was “foul play” here, but I do think it is a fair assumption. You’re free to disagree and I would love more clarity on this situation. But based on Jackson Lee’s shameful past and her disgusting “racism” diversion, I would not put it past her that she or her aides knew exactly what they were doing to secure her seat in 1A and did it anyway.