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.
— Vernon Loeb (@LoebVernon) December 23, 2017
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.