United Airlines
A passenger aboard a recent United Airlines flight from Houston to Washington D.C. claims the carrier gave away her first-class seat to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A passenger aboard a recent United Airlines flight from Houston to Washington D.C. claims the carrier gave away her first-class seat to Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Tex) as an act of preferential treatment. Both United Airlines and Jackson Lee deny that any such incident occurred.

Jean-Marie Simon, 63, described the Dec. 3 incident to the Houston Chronicle as “humiliating” and claimed the airline threatened to remove her from the craft when she raised concern with airline staff. According to the Chronicle, the private school teacher and attorney used 140,000 miles to purchase the ticket for a trip between Washington D.C. and Guatemala. The Washington D.C.-bound flight from George Bush Intercontinental Airport was reportedly the last leg of the trip.

According to Simon, the mix-up occurred after an hour-long delay resulting from weather. When Simon finally attempted to board, she was reportedly told that her first-class seat in 1A was taken before being issued a $500 voucher and a seat in row 11 in Economy Plus. While boarding, Simon snapped a picture of the congresswoman sitting in the seat she initially purchased.

Simon claims the congresswoman received preferential treatment, but both Jackson Lee and United Airlines denied the allegation.

“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 Airlines said in a statement to the Chronicle. “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.”

It’s not clear why Simon’s reservation was cancelled, as she claims she did not do it herself. Screenshots from both the airline and Simon obtained by the Chronicle failed to provide further clarity.

Simon alleges she did not immediately know who the congresswoman was. But upon learning she was Jackson Lee, Simon reportedly confronted a flight attendant, who was also African American. The congresswoman issued a statement of her own Saturday and insinuated that Simon’s complaints were racially motivated.

“I asked for nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary and received nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary,” the congresswoman said, according to The Hill. “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 added: “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 responded to the charge of racism in a statement to the Chronicle.

“I had no idea who was in my seat when I complained at the gate that my seat had been given to someone else,” she said. “There is no way you can see who is in a seat from inside the terminal.”

United Airlines has had a bumpy public relations year amid ongoing reports of poor customer service. Perhaps most visible among a string of incidents, Dr. David Dao was dragged and bloodied by security in April after he refused to deboard an overbooked flight for which he had purchased a ticket. Following public outcry, Dao reached a settlement with United Airlines for an undisclosed amount in April.