When United booted a paying customer from first class to make room for a member of Congress, the Internet erupted with good and healthy egalitarian outrage. But don’t blame the airline.
The congresswoman in question was Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas. And until she lands on the no-fly list, no airline is safe. Jackson Lee has been terrorizing the skies since coming to Congress in 1995.
The Democrat has developed a reputation for making life hell for any clerk, stewardess, or pilot unwilling or unable to make her three-and-a-half-hour flight anything less than glamorous. She takes advantage of federal travel perks to book multiple flights (only to cancel at the last minute and at no charge). She demands an upgrade to premier seats. She expects, in her words, “to be treated like a queen.”
Sometimes it gets ugly. For instance, when one peasant of a flight attendant failed to serve the food Jackson Lee requested, the congresswoman went wild. "Don't you know who I am?" she reportedly shrieked. "I'm Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. Where is my seafood meal? I know it was ordered!"
That inflight incident was in 1998, and Jackson Lee has only increased in seniority since. She sits on the Committee on Homeland Security and she serves as the ranking member of the subcommittee on transportation security, no doubt, giving her even more sway over the airlines and even more of a reason to feel entitled.
When accused of taking an ill-gotten first-class seat, Jackson Lee was adamant she didn't do anything wrong. It's just the way she expects to be treated. "I asked for nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary and received nothing exceptional or out of the ordinary," the congresswoman said in a statement. Slay queen.
What’s an honest airline to do anyway? Airlines are one of the most regulated industries. Sure, they have an obligation to get passengers from A to B. But they also have a larger obligation to their stockholders. Angering an influential lawmaker doesn’t help the bottom line, and so it just isn’t done.
Of course, it would be nice if business saw everyday citizens and lawmakers the same. Some goodhearted congressmen like Rep. Ron Estes, R-Kan., who recently insisted on giving up his seats on an overbooked flight to Wichita, bristle at any distinction. But that’s not the way Washington works. Quite simply, there are rules for the rulers and rules for the rest of us.
At least one airline tried standing up to Jackson Lee. After the seafood fiasco, the head of government relations for Continental demanded the congresswoman either shape up or catch a competitor’s flight. That airline is no more though. At this point, only one group of stockholders can kick the congresswoman out of first class: her constituents. Those voters can rally together at the ballot box to boot her back to coach. Otherwise Jackson Lee will continue to terrorize the skies.