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Democratic rep says she was targeted on flight by a passenger because she's black

Chairwomen Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) questions acting Transportation Security Administration Administrator, Gale Rossides during a House Homeland Security Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, December 16, 2009 in Washington, D.C. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Confusion on a United Airlines flight from Houston to Washington, D.C. has a passenger claiming the airline gave her seat to a congresswoman, and that congresswoman saying the accusation is potentially racist.

What happened

The passenger is Jean-Marie Simon, and the congresswoman is Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas).

Both were attempting to take a Dec. 18 flight from Houston, Texas, to Washington, D.C. Jackson Lee’s seat was upgraded to first class, which United said had nothing to do with her status as a congresswoman.

Simon tried to get on that same flight, but was told that her reservation had been canceled. The airline instead offered Simon a seat in Economy Plus.

Simon claims the airline gave her seat to Jackson Lee. But, the airline said Simon canceled her own reservation before the flight. Simon denies that she canceled her flight.

“…we found that upon receiving 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,” the airline said in a statement.

The United statement also said that Jackson Lee was upgraded to first class as part of the “normal pre-boarding process,” and that Jackson Lee was the “first customer on the waitlist for an upgrade.”

Was this race-related?

Jackson Lee issued a statement Monday about the incident to clear herself of any wrongdoing. From The Hill:

“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.”

The resolution

Although United said the woman canceled her own flight, they still offered Simon an apology and a $500 voucher for her trouble, Fox News reported.

Simon tells a slightly different story about United’s customer service, however. She said she was offered a $300 voucher on the day of her flight, and was only given $500 after she insisted. She also said she didn’t receive an apology.

“United has not apologized to me,” Simon said to the New York Post. “A low-ranking employee responding to an online customer complaint apologized on the phone, in his individual capacity. He also said he would send my complaint up the chain at United. To date, I have not heard from United.”

This writer’s perspective

Unless part of this story isn’t being told, this wasn’t a race-related incident. While the congresswoman clearly had nothing to do with the conflict between Simon and the airline, it’s impossible to say why Simon targeted Jackson Lee.

Maybe United canceled Simon’s flight. Or, maybe Simon canceled it herself. It really depends on who you choose to believe.

But let’s just call this a customer service mishap that happened to involve a black congresswoman, rather than making it a personalized racial attack. There are enough of those already without us creating more.

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