Congresswoman Claims She Was Targeted In United Airlines Incident Because Of Her Race

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Congresswoman Shiela Jackson Lee
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said she boarded the United Airlines flight via the normal process and didn’t request any special treatment.(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A Texas congresswoman claims she was targeted by a passenger who accused her of taking her first-class seat on a United Airlines flight out of Texas earlier this month because “she’s an African-American woman.”

“I am disappointed in having to respond to this accusation, but I believe transparency is very important,” U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Houston) said in a statement posted to her Twitter page on Tuesday, Dec. 26. “Unfortunately, it looks like Grinch is trying to steal the spirit of the holiday.”

Jean-Marie Simon, 63, accused United of giving her seat to the congresswoman after she allegedly canceled her flight to Washington, D.C., the Houston Chronicle reported. Simon denies doing so, however, and said airline officials threatened to remove her off the plane after she complained about the mix-up and snapped a photo of Jackson Lee in her seat.

The unfortunate series of events unfolded Dec. 18 at George Bush Intercontinental Airport where Simon says a gate attendant scanned her ticket and told her it was no longer in the system. The attendant asked if she canceled her flight, to which she replied “no,” and was instead given a $500 voucher and a new seat in row 11, according to the newspaper.

By that time, Jackson Lee was already seated in Simon’s pre-purchased first-class seat. The congresswoman said she received her boarding pass for the flight and boarded the aircraft via the normal process. NBC News reported that she then noticed a commotion from someone walking back and forth in the cabin. That’s when the individual (Simon) “came toward me and took a picture,” Jackson Lee recalled.

“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,” she said. “This saddens me, especially at this time of year given all the things we have to work on to help people.”

Simon argued that the airline gave Jackson Lee preferential treatment because she’s a member of Congress, but United officials said that wasn’t the case.

” … 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,” United said in a statement. “As part of the normal pre-boarding process, gate agents began clearing standby and upgrade customers, including the first customer on the waitlist for a [seat] upgrade.”

An airline representative told NBC News that the congresswoman has global services status within the company and was given an upgrade when the first-class seat became available.

Simon has denied that race played a factor in her complaint, like Jackson Lee had alleged, saying she had no idea who was in her seat when she told the gate agent that it had been given to another passenger. Now, she’s asking for a formal, written apology from the airline, even though a representative from a complaint call center had already called to apologize.

“It’s just impossible to suspend disbelief and swallow that story that I canceled my flight,” Simon told the Houston Chronicle.

Jackson Lee denies any wrongdoing.

This is the latest in a string of high-profile incidents involving United Airlines. In April, video of a doctor being forcibly removed from his seat after a flight was overbooked sparked outrage.

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