Update, 6/4: In a statement posted to their website, United Airlines apologized for the actions of the attendant and states that the Shuttle America employee (a United partner) "will no longer serve United customers."
"United does not tolerate behavior that is discriminatory–or that appears to be discriminatory—against our customers or employees."
Original story, 6/1: Tahera Ahmad is used to talking about religious discrimination. But the 31-year-old didn't expect to confront it in midair. The Muslim chaplain and director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University was flying to a conference on United Airlines, wearing a hijab, when she says she was discriminated against on the basis of her religion.
According to a Facebook post (which has since been taken down, along with her profile), Ahmad asked a flight attendant for a can of Diet Coke and received a can that was already opened. She asked for an unopened one "due to hygienic reasons," but was told that wasn't possible. But a man next to her got a can of unopened beer, so Ahmad pressed the flight attendant. This is what happened next:
"She said, 'We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people because they may use it as a weapon on the plane.' So I told her that she was clearly discriminating against me because she gave the man next to me an unopened can of beer. She looked at his can, quickly grabbed it and opened it and said, 'it's so you don't use it as a weapon.'"
She pointed out the discrimination to those around her, and then a man sitting across from her started yelling bigoted slurs. "I felt the hate in his voice and his raging eyes," she said, but nobody did anything about it. She posted about her ordeal on Facebook during the flight. After the plane touched down, the flight attendant apologized for her behavior. Even the pilot apologized and helped her file an official complaint.
United Airlines responded with this statement:
"The flight attendant onboard Shuttle America flight 3504 attempted several times to accommodate Ms. Ahmad's beverage request after a misunderstanding regarding a can of diet soda. The inflight crew met with Ms. Ahmad after the flight arrived in Washington to provide assistance and further discuss the matter. Additionally, we spoke with Ms. Ahmad this afternoon to get a better understanding of what occurred and to apologize for not delivering the service our customers expect when traveling with us. We look forward to having the opportunity to welcome Ms. Ahmad back."
But Ahmad says that statement doesn't improve anything. On Facebook, she wrote that United "trivialized" the incident as a disagreement about soda, but when in reality it was about discrimination. She argued that because they were inconsistent in following their procedures about canned drinks, and referenced using the can as a weapon, they encouraged the bigoted reaction and didn't intervene when it happened. "This is not about a can of soda," she wrote. She doesn't want the flight attendant to get fired, she said, but she just wants a sincere apology.