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. What a garbage response from Lee. Why is the racism card the first thing people play?

    Spending 140,000 miles, tho. :facepalm:

  2. She was compensated appropriately IMO … but I don’t believe United’s version of the story for a second–particularly given their tendency to give politicians preferential treatment, and SJL is despicable for immediately trying to claim racism.

  3. Disgusting on two levels: 1) the banana-republic aspect of this, giving the political elite the right to bump ordinary citizens from their seats; and 2) the knee-jerk racism accusation, as if any critique involving the idiotic Sheila Jackson Lee must be based on her race and not on her perpetually obnoxious behavior. Shame on UAL and Shame on Rep. Lee.

  4. Why was the original passenger bumped down? That is the first question United should respond without any BS reasons like “appeared to have cancelled”. Did the passenger receive any cancellation notification upon such activity? Clearly UA does whatever they can to bend to the big wigs. The chairman’s flight, Dr. Dao, now this and next what?

  5. Regardless of the reason for the passenger losing her upgrade, she lost all sympathy from me when she took a picture of the other passenger. The other passenger did nothing to her and she behaved poorly by blaming the passenger. I’m glad she wasted her miles.

  6. See the trees for the forest it’s poor PR for the Congresswoman to bump a passenger in First Class so she can fly up front. Take Senator Murray in Washington like many fly in coach and they travel dressed “down”. No Congresswoman Lee needs to take a look at herself and what she stands for. If she criticizes business then bumps someone in first hmm.

  7. Anyone in F on miles is “expendable”. If they need the seat they will take it. If they change equipment award F is the first on the chopping block.
    Race card argument is so overused that no one buys it anymore.
    See the list of 100 things in 2017 by Tucker.
    Maybe because UA upgrades SJL they weren’t designed by NACP as the racist airline like AA.

  8. This would have been so much funnier if after UA realized that they gave away the seat by mistake they would come to 1A and ask SJL to move back to coach since her upgrade was a mistake and she would have to go back to her original seat in the ticketed cabin.
    OMG all hell would break loose. I’ve met the woman and spent time with her.

  9. Gary – It’s bizarre that you spend so much time on your blog pointing out instances in which African-Americans claim “racism”, along with your insistence that it isn’t racism.

    I read this story very differently than you do (although I make no claim as to knowing whether racial animus was involved). Instead, it seems to me that it’s a story of an involuntary downgrade followed by aggressive behavior by a passenger or a flight attendant or both. It’s a good story, and relevant to your blog.

    So why do you have to have an opinion on an observation from a black woman who might, just possibly, have some experience on which to draw?

    As I have pointed out before, perhaps you simply don’t know what you’re talking about in this area? Perhaps you have a blind spot?

    Just like men shouldn’t be explaining to women what harassment is vs flirting, and what gradations of harassment are worse than others, I don’t really think white men should be telling African American women how to recognize racism.

  10. “Representative Jackson Lee, for her part, accuses passenger Simon of racism.”
    A standard Congressional response when you don’t have a decent answer to criticism. Says more about US Rep. Lee than we need to know.
    United, it seems, never misses an opportunity to shoot itself in the foot. Why I *never* fly them. Ten years ago we probably wouldn’t hear about this, but in today’s social media-obsessed World?

  11. Play the race card at every turn. It’s the African American way. And from a politician, no less.

  12. John, Good copy! Very well stated. Just the mention of race slants the story as witnessed by the responses. For God’s sakes, play fair and keep your punches above the belt.

  13. Gary, u have become most proficient at stoking racism with your slanted post so that people like the characters above (John and Michael Kraus) can make their racist comments denigrating the civil rights movement. Trump would love reading this

  14. Clearly the complaining customer is lost at sea when it comes to latter day air travel via United Airlines. Not only did the customer shell out 140,000 miles for the seat in the first place, it appears that, second, she just narrowly missed her chance to meet the famous United SWAT team up close and personal as they, uh, rectified the brouhaha.

  15. @John in this case the PARTICULAR Black woman has a long history of both absurd, selfish behavior AND seeing herself as the victim of racism in instances no reasonable person would. If her name was Sheila Jones and she had no past history of spuriously claiming to be the victim of random racist behavior, I’d be a lot more inclined to believe her.

  16. 140,000 miles seems a very expensive ticket for a 1200 mile flight but , $500 is a good incentive for less than three hours of discomfort . I’m used to taking flights of twelve or more hours so 1200 miles sounds like a breeze .
    I would be upset if I was looking forward to first class and got bumped to economy unexpectedly .

  17. Yea because of course the woman is racist if she complains about being tossed out of her first class seat for some hack politician right? This is par for the course with Jackson who screams racism anytime anyone raises any question about her actions. Next time she wants to fly first class maybe she should just pay for the damn seat?

  18. At my age and state of decrepitude I would kill to get out of the painful down-sized coach seats every US airline has installed.

    $500 voucher? That’s about El Paso to Dallas in coach. Big deal.

    Go Sheila, Go Jean-Marie Simon, use whatever you’ve got! May the toughest, meanest rat in the maze win.

  19. Before I read any of the comments, or even the whole article, my first reaction was, ” The congress person serves the people. We pay her salary, and the person she displaced pays her salary. To avoid a concern on the behalf a constituent, once she became aware of the situation, why wouldn’t she just voluntarily offer to change seats with the passenger the seat had been assigned to?” I am a United Premier 1 K client, and have offered this when it solves a problem for another passenger. Isn’t that what Congressmen are for – to solve problems and make things better for constituents? In my mind, if she was on a business or personal trip is beside the point. She could have helped alleviate an issue. She didn’t.

  20. @John are you serious?Its not automatically racism because someone complains that they were removed from their first class seat and its NOT racism just because a person has some experiences to draw on. If that was true then everything ever said or done could be called racist just because Jackson feels like it. That has to be the stupidest comment I have seen on the internet today.

  21. No innocent parties here.

    Pax probably messed with the res in the app and got confused, rebooking on a different flight.

    UA maybe upgraded the congresswoman out of order (or maybe not, she could be 1K or GS and flying on a whY fare).

    UA could have put the woman back into the first class seat and downgraded the upgrade, but that doesn’t seem to be policy.

    Pax shouldn’t have been snapping photos of other pax.

  22. Typical of both UA and this congress person. Sad to accuse racism and then say how sorry you feel for the person you just accused. I bet it would have been different if they had downgraded the congress person to coach. Imagine the racist rant that would have happened then.

  23. Politics 101. To become a powerful congresswoman or congressman, you must be able to grandstand and scream about an issue in a moment’s notice in any discussion regardless of whether the issue is pertinent to the topic or discussion.or question asked. The issue just needs to resonate with 50.1% of your constituency. She is a proven winner and she won that situation. Congrats.

  24. @Kyle,
    “Does everything have to be about race?!”

    Yes – otherwise people would figure out that she’s just an ordinary, everyday asshole.

  25. I won’t pretend that racism doesn’t exist, even among African-Americans, but this story does not at all seem to be related to that. Crying “racism” at every turn is unfortunate and creates the perception of doubt when it really takes place.

    Rep. Jackson-Lee has long exhibited moronic behavior and an air of entitlement. My suspicion – without admittedly knowing all of the facts – is that United is in the wrong here, playing favorites with a politician over an “ordinary” citizen-consumer.

    The amount of compensation is irrelevant, as is the amount spent for the award booking.

  26. @Bill – the point is, I am not suggesting that the behavior is racist. You are and Gary are claiming categorically that it wasn’t.

    That’s the stupid.

  27. As someone who actually lives in her district, I honestly don’t care because she’s a great congresswoman who does a great deal for her community. And honestly, white people never paid their reparations for slavery, segregation, colinialism, and all the other horrible stuff they still continue to get away with, so this is hilarious to me and I’ll keep voting for her because of how triggered white people get by her.

  28. A perfect microcosm of what drives the hideous worst-on-earth right wing backlash in the US which sees a full third willing to blow up everything before they let the coloreds get anything they think is reserved for their pasty white lardazzes.

    Get this straight: there is no “New south” which was a dream of true Christians like Jimmy Carter who wanted to heal America’s racial gash that never heals, and is endlessly vilified to this day in the exact proportion that fat disgusting racists preen over the nation’s dismantling just like you saw them at the Trump rallies.

    We are no longer even a modern nation in the eyes of the rest of the civilized world, which starting with our allies now teaches in their schools that the American redneck baboon is the greatest threat to the world and an absolute civilization destroyer.

    In the hands of the remaining third who won’t get involved rests the lone ability to save America. The world is betting against this and moving on. Meanwhile Nazi’s march in the streets of America in growing numbers, hailing their leader in the White House!

    Happy holidays America!

  29. Such a bull shit PC world we are in. Eveyone pulls the race card. The passenger was pisses because they got kicked out of their seat. Not because of someone’s race. God damn people suck

  30. @Ray as far as reparations are concerned, what about the 600,000 men who died in the civil war that ended slavery? Slavery was a terrible evil and nothing will make it so it didn’t happen throughout much of human history. But you were never a slave, I never owned slaves, and my ancestor never owned slaves (though some were murdered by Hitler in concentration camps).

  31. @Allen – my view is that Trump doesn’t belong in the White House, but that Sheila Jackson Lee and a handful of others demonstrate that he’d be well at home in the House.

  32. @John “I don’t really think white men should be telling African American women how to recognize racism.”

    Except that I have a brain.

    How on earth could it be racism when the woman complained BEFORE KNOWING WHO TOOK HER SEAT? If she didn’t know it was an African American woman, how could she have been motivated by racial animus?

  33. Wow…. SJL accusing ANYBODY of racism is a complete joke! She’s a HUGE racist herself and desperately needs her skull caved in with a tire iron. Filthy piece of rat shit.

  34. Entitlement, is thinking you DESERVE a particular seat on a particular plane.

    Airline may downgrade you at will. Compensation is in order. Or discuss with gate about switching flights to one with F. Taking pictures of who ended up in “your” seat is entirely indecent.

    Reminds me of my experience with a lady who was desperate to sit next to her travel companion, and thought separating parent and small child was a fine solution to her problem.

  35. The congresswoman is very likely Global Services as United is known to grant the status to VIPs. Like it or not United probably considers her a VIP—it’s cheaper for them to do that than pay more to a lobbyist . United giving upgrades to GS members is nothing new.
    Back in the days when I was a 1K I was downgraded involuntarily a couple times and took my compensation and my coach seat—and at least once on a reward ticket. It’s their program and they can do what they want. No drama. No Twitter wars. I’m sure this person would have been rebooked on a later flight if she absolutely had to fly F.

  36. , yeah glad to know that the blog is populated by disgusting fat filthy racists. Just know that in the eyes of the entire civilized world you flying trumpanzees are the lowest scum along with your orange Fuehrer..

  37. I’m from Houston and I’ve heard queen sheilah spoke at the Houston VA hospital so I can vouch that the woman is a Double Ds (referencing “Renaissance Man”).

  38. The PAX photographing another passenger is problematic –more so in that she also published it without permission as well.

    The downgraded pax degrades her own case by going on a rant AND publishing an unauthorized photo. She is angry with the upgraded passenger when she should be angry only with United. It doesn’t matter who United upgraded. Could be a child sick with cancer or a young couple on their honeymoon — who cares the reason. United is the only party that should have been mentioned and the photographing and publication of the upgraded passenger is completely out of bounds.

    Is there anything in United rules that will affect the downgraded passenger’s future ability to fly with them for taking unauthorized photographs? Is there anything anywhere in their obscure rules that prevents the taking of pictures? I recall a few years ago someone was nearly removed or was removed from the plane for taking a selfie… this would surely be a violation photographing someone else and publishing it.

    The downgraded passenger has clearly fouled out by blaming the upgraded passenger. Her fight is with United and I suspect she named the upgraded passenger out of spite, racism, political differences or any combination thereof and/or for reasons unmentioned but still just as invalid. I’d be worried about having the ability to fly on United after pulling a stunt like that. Complain about United, not the passenger that got upgraded.

  39. Aren’t politicians “public servants?” Therefore Lee should have deferred to the pax and waited for another flight or sat in economy.

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