United Passenger Accused of Racism After Losing First Class to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

Sheila Jackson Lee is the Congresswoman from Houston, where Continental Airlines was based and where United maintains an important hub. She’s clearly an airline VIP.

A 63 year old attorney named Jean-Marie Simon redeemed 140,000 MileagePlus miles for a roundtrip premium cabin ticket to Guatemala — which is shocking enough — but on her final segment Houston to Washington DC on December 18 she says she was involuntarily downgraded to coach (and received a $500 voucher) and that Congresswoman Jackson Lee was in her seat.

The passenger complained and she says that United threatened to remove her from the flight. She snapped a photo of the congresswoman in seat 1A where she had been assigned.

And United says it all happened because the passenger “appears to have canceled her flight from Houston to Washington, D.C. within the United mobile app” when she received a flight delay notification so the congresswoman was upgraded into the seat which became available.

Ms. Simon denies this, saying “It’s just impossible to suspend disbelief and swallow that story that I cancelled my flight.”

Representative Jackson Lee, for her part, accuses passenger Simon of racism.

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,” Jackson Lee said in the statement. “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.

The passenger says that since she complained about being bumped out of her first class seat before knowing who was in it, her grievance couldn’t be motivated by racial animus.

However her grievance could well be motivated by spending 140,000 miles for a domestic first class seat to travel 2300 miles each way. Ultimately I think a $500 voucher is well worth the downgrade from domestic first class to Economy Plus on the 1200 mile flight.

Update: Apropos Sheila Jackson Lee sitting in a first class that had earlier been assigned to someone else, Phil M. reminds of past reporting of the Congresswoman’s behavior with Houston-based Continental Airlines (from 1998):

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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. “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…”

    Boy, can you say “passive – aggressive”…!!!???

  2. 1: 140,000 United miles is at least $1400. So no, $500 is nowhere near enough for any involuntary downgrade. Esp. When it’s not an equipment change making the seat go away

    2: The true racist here is Lee, thinking her skin color entitles her to better treatment.

    3: I’m so glad I no longer fly United

  3. 1: You take my seat, I’m sure as hell going to take a picture of you and try to shame you on social media. If Lee didn’t want her picture taken, she should have gotten out of the passenger’s seat

    2: @John: claims of racism must be proven with solid evidence, or rightly be mocked

    3: @Gary I’m disappointed in the passive aggressive way your headline parroted Lee. It should said “falsely accused”

    4: @Greg you’re a dumb conservative doing a really bad parody of an idiot leftist, right?

  4. For the love of humanity, we do not have all the information. In lieu of that, while Congresswoman Lee may have behaved badly in the past, it is inappropriate to assign fault with her in this instance.

  5. How is this a possible case of racism? If it were racism, that would be on the part of United, not Jean-Marie Simon. Simon had no hand in what happened to her or who ended up in her first class seat. Simon paid for her seat. She expected to be in it. She was bumped from it and inexplicably given a voucher by United. Only later during a tarmac delay did she walk up to first class only to find (and photograph) Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee occupying her paid seat. Before then, she had no idea who was in that seat. How could racism even apply here?

    United claims Ms. Simon cancelled her ticket through a phone app. Ms. Simon says she didn’t. Why would she? She’s trying to get home. That cancellation statement from United makes no sense. Yes, her ticket probably was cancelled, but not by Ms. Simon. It was more likely cancelled by someone at United on behalf of Sheila Jackson Lee so Ms. Lee could get a first class seat.

    United needs to investigate and find out why Ms. Simon’s ticket was ‘cancelled’, by whom and if it was at the request of Sheila Jackson Lee. I know United’s computer systems have audit logs. This is what United needs to do. Sheila Jackson Lee needs to stop throwing around baseless racism accusations that make no sense.

  6. She is a bad person and she is not very bright. By a wide margin she has the fastest staff turnover in washington because people simply hate to work with her. Sometimes she will destroy a career over it. From her wikipedia page in 2011 she was named as one of the “worst bosses in Washington and regular is listed as the meanest member of congress by washington magazine. Not to mention the times over the years where she seemed confused, such as when she was on the house science committee overseeing nasa and asked if a probe on mars could drive to and photograph the flag apollo 11 planted on the moon. This is just more of the same, as is hiding behind race once it is brought up.

  7. Greg, their likely isn’t a direct flight between. Washington and Guatemala, do a connecting flight between Guatemala and Houston to Houston to Washington would make sense.

    I still think $500 for an upgrade for a four hour flight works out to $125 per hour which is a lot of money in my books for slightly better treatment.

  8. SJL is a discredit to her race.
    And she should know that her constantly playing the racism card weakens the potency of using the racism accusation. Fewer and fewer people are taking it seriously anymore thanks to people like her who abuse the term.

  9. “Wrong for taking unauthorized photographs”

    Huh? What world do you live in? This is a public figure in a public place. Like it or not, we’re all “on camera” 24-7 when not at home.

  10. There was no reason at all to play the race card. Lee did not have to bring that up, unless she is a racist at heart. And she makes other blacks look bad in the process. Lee is an overentitled embarrassment of a public servant. A good public servant (and human being) would have given up her 1st class seat to the passenger “in the spirit of the season”

  11. How could the first time she saw Congresswoman Lee in the seat be during the tarmac delay? Several news articles state that Ms. Lee boarded the plane first. Wouldn’t Ms. Simon had to have passed her on her way to the economy seat? Yet she says she only saw Ms. Lee and took the picture during the delay when they brought a gate agent down to arrange alternate travel for people. Gap in story or flawed reporting?

  12. All these nasty comments about an elected black congresswoman who is at the forefront of the civil rights movement. Everyone just pile on! She can’t be right now, how can she? They are all just so uppity. Don’t they know their place. Why wasn’t she just seated in the back of the plane where she belongs? Just say what u really want to say while u pile on. I am now sending a donation to the NAACP to combat racisism

  13. This is not the first time that Ms. Lee has accused someone else of racism to cover the fact that she’s simply a horrible human being. You don’t have to be a genius to see what happened here. She’s done it before. Ms. Lee showed up at the counter and demanded that she be upgraded to first class. United, not known for have a backbone and in order to quell Ms. Lee’s strident demands and accusations of racism, took the path of least resistance and gave her Ms. Simon’s seat. When Ms. Simon demanded to know what happened, United cooked up the cancellation excuse and tried to modify Ms. Simon with $500 and a seat in the regular cabin. When United couldn’t produce any proof of cancellation, the whole story fell apart. If Ms. Jackson Lee hadn’t done this before and played the race card on more occasions than one can count, I might be inclined to say she’s an innocent party in all this but her history proves otherwise.

  14. I guess the Congress worker didn’t know racism ended last century.
    When you act like a spoiled brat you get treated as one.
    As far as the airline goes…I’m sure that there were many people who wanted a seat on that flight because they were on standby…why didn’t one of them get the seat?

  15. When you are dropped from F to E even for one segment then the miles should be adjusted to reflect that. instead of 140 k miles she should have gone down to E miles for the ENTIRE trip.

    I was on a trip to SYD that was supposed to be F the entire way. No one told him I as going to by in Y seats for the 30 hrs of the 52 hrs of the flight . I got the miles adjusted because the airline did NOT give me the F seats that I was promised and MISLEAD me to believe I as in F the entire time but in Y seats.

  16. Sandy writes:

    “How could the first time she saw Congresswoman Lee in the seat be during the tarmac delay? Several news articles state that Ms. Lee boarded the plane first. Wouldn’t Ms. Simon had to have passed her on her way to the economy seat?”

    The assumption is that Ms. Lee may have boarded first because first class boards first. However, Ms. Lee is known to arrive very late for everything. It’s very possible the actual reason the plane was delayed on the tarmac was that they were waiting on Ms. Lee to show up and board. If anyone negotiated Ms. Lee’s first class accommodation changes, it was likely one of her staffers.

    Now, if Ms. Lee was truly on standby for first class as has been suggested by United, standby doesn’t board first. They board last and only after it has been determined that there will be a seat available. However, if you are a valid coach ticket holder (not standby) who is waiting on an upgrade, the airline will typically board you into your coach seat and then a flight attendant will stop by and inform you of your upgrade and move you once everyone else is seated. How each airline chooses to handle coach to first class upgrades is variable.

    Assuming that Ms. Lee was actually on time for the flight, It’s highly probable that Ms. Lee was not in the seat at the time Ms. Simon passed by. Only after the tarmac delay would Ms. Simon have been able to wander up and snap that photo (after Ms. Lee had moved up from coach). So, it is very possible that Ms. Simon didn’t see anyone seated in that first class seat at the time she passed through the cabin. Of course, if Ms. Lee boarded late (and last) .. not out of the question, then that would explain it right there.

    If you would like to read more about Ms. Lee’s tardiness, here’s an excellent article: http://dailycaller.com/2011/03/02/congressional-bosses-from-hell-sheila-jackson-lee/

  17. Jackson was american. An economic hustler, huckster, and identity politico hack. Perhaps, reading why america Failed by Morris BERMAN can help those stuck in the failed empire.

  18. The statement made by congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee explains clearly why citizens are fed up with politics and politicians.
    No, it was not because you are black, but because the average citizen feels unfairly pushed aside by high ranking politicians, no matter what their color or party.

  19. When all else fails and you are in the wrong, go ahead and play the “race card”
    I get more and more disgusted every day by our ‘entitled’ politicians

  20. United still has a lot of explaining to do.
    To blame the customer or the computer is tantamount to Fraud and Defamation. Now the customer has to prove they didn’t cancel their flight using their app on their phone during the delay? HP spied on some its employees or board members and had to use an illegal tactic to get more information. They were fined millions for lying. I believe they were prosecuted criminally for a felony. If United lied to this customer and then covered it up, they need a good prosecution and they need to be investigated for a pattern, because the incentives to do this are too great. Next time they need to sell a First class ticket for $2000 that somebody already paid $500 for, well, just blame it on the computer, give the original customer a free flight or something to go away, and pocket the $1500 difference.
    I mean, isn’t that like Apple slowing down the iPhone, or Wells Fargo generating 1,000,000 accounts, or Equifax losing 143 million records (in other words, all of them). These things don’t happen right. Oh wait, those are what we know about just in the last 6-18 months.
    I will take the bus before I fly United without watching my back (actually I won’t but I don’t fly FC).
    DAL, SW, AA, etc should also be mad. They may not have an opportunity to stoop to these levels to get preferential treatment from their representatives, so in the end they lose.

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