Teacher claims United gave away her first-class seat to a congresswoman

Traveling during the holidays can be a worrying experience, with delays, mishaps, and extra layers of security to get through. But one woman is sharing a particularly bad experience: she says a member of congress got her kicked out of her seat in first class.

Jean-Marie Simon, a teacher from Washington D.C., was returning home from a trip to Guatemala. According to her, on the final leg of her journey, she was bumped out of her first class seat on United Flight 788 from Bush International Airport in Texas to Reagan national Airport in D.C..

“I said I wanted my seat, that I had paid a lot of miles for that seat, and that it was United’s responsibility to undo the seat assignment and return it to me, the person who had paid for it,” writes Simon in a lengthy Facebook post detailing the event.

According to her, she waited to board the plane after a short weather delay and just before getting on she saw a woman she didn’t recognize ushered on board the plane by a flight attendant before everyone else.

When Simon approached the gate, a United employee told her that there was no record of her in the system. This is despite Simon having a physical boarding pass for that flight.

“Why was there no receipt of cancellation? Why is there no record of that?” Simon told us in telephone interview. Simon, who says she spent 140,000 frequent flyer miles on her trip, isn’t just a casual flyer. She regularly makes trips in and out of the country and is well experienced with navigating the hectic ins and outs of airports.

“The reason I don’t cancel my flights is simple,” she told us, “two reasons, first is the later you fly the more likely you are to be on a crowded plane, and two, the weather builds in Houston.”

After wrangling with the gate agents, who she says were very nice, they offered her a $500 voucher and a seat in the economy section.

To make things more unusual, flight 788, according to Simon, was not at full capacity. Whole rows remained empty for the flight, making Simon’s seat change all the more strange. “It was way less than packed, huge number of empty seats,” says Simon.

It was then a man identifying himself as a Texas congressman sat down next to her. Simon claims the man told her that he was glad she had made in on the flight and that Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee was the reason she’d been bumped.

According to Simon, the congressman said, “Jackson Lee gives us all a bad name; it’s shameful,” and pointed out that the airport is in Jackson Lee’s district, Texas’s 18th Congressional district. Up until that conversation Simon says she didn’t know who Jackson Lee was.

“I don’t live in Texas, I’ve lived in D.C. since 1997, I don’t even know who the senators (there) are,” said Simon.

Meanwhile, a technical delay was keeping the plane grounded. The cabin crew told passengers they could check with a gate agent about making other flight arrangements. Simon headed to the front of the plane and seeing Jackson Lee in her seat snapped a picture of her on her cellphone.

Later a flight attendant approached Simon and asked if she was going to disrupt the flight. Simon responded “I just want to go home.” The flight attendant warned Simon that she could return with a security guard and have her escorted off of the plane.

United is denying that Simon was deliberately bumped from her seat or that her booking records were deliberately deleted.

“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 an upgrade.”

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Simon has rebuffed this claim with a screenshot of the United website she shared with Yahoo that shows only one “inactive” flight on her profile: a trip to Houston last August that was cancelled due to Hurricane Harvey. United fired back by saying that the trip from Houston to D.C. would not appear as cancelled as she ultimately did take the flight.

Internal data from the airline shared with reporters at the Houston Chronicle in support of their claims could not be independently verified.

Jackson Lee in a statement Saturday denies taking the woman’s seat and instead suggests the encounter was racially charged. “I asked for nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary and received nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary,” says Jackson Lee.

She goes on to say: “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. 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.”

Simon rejects claims that race had anything to do with the dispute, “How can this be racially motivated if I can’t see who’s in my seat while standing at the gate? It could have been anybody, it happened to be her,” she said.

Simon is surprised by all the media attention around the issue and has spent the last few days recalling the events to reporters. “I’m shocked this has become a media maelstrom,” she said.

She also says she did not seek out reporters with her story, that they contacted her after her Facebook post began to go viral.

In a perfect world Simon would like a written, unconditional apology from United Airlines and her frequent flyer miles refunded. “This is not about me gaining anything, I just want to be made whole again,” she said, “I just want what’s fair.”

Simon has written to the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz, to ask for redress of grievances. United Airlines has suffered a string of embarrassing public relations mishaps over the last year, including the forcible removal of Dr. David Dao from an oversold flight in Chicago back in April – video of that encounter went viral.

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