A Muslim chaplain from Northwestern University said a United Airlines flight attendant made derogatory comments to her after she requested an unopened can of Diet Coke on a flight from Chicago to Washington D.C.
Tahera Ahmad, an associate chaplain and director of interfaith engagement, relayed the alleged incident on Facebook while she was on the flight Friday night.
She told her followers she was in tears following the exchange, which she said prompted a passenger to swear at her and also make anti-Muslim remarks.
Earlier, Ahmad said the flight attendant had given her an opened can of Diet Coke.
When Ahmad requested an unopened can, the flight attendant told her, “Well, I’m sorry. I just can’t give you an unopened can, so no Diet Coke for you.”
The same flight attendant then proceeded to give another passenger an unopened can of beer, Ahmad said.
Ahmad said she again asked the flight attendant why the man was able to receive an unopened beverage but she couldn’t.
The flight attendant, according to Ahmad, replied, “We are unauthorized to give unopened cans to people, because they may use it as a weapon on the plane.”
When Ahmad proceeded to tell the flight attendant she felt she was being discriminated against, the flight attendant quickly grabbed the man’s can, opened it and said, “It’s so you don’t use it as a weapon,” Ahmad said.
Stunned, Ahmad asked other passengers if they had seen what had transpired, prompting a man sitting in an aisle across from her to exclaim, “You Muslim, you need to shut the f— up,” Ahmad said.
“What?” a shocked Ahmad replied.
Then, Ahmad said, that passenger leaned over from his seat, looked her straight in the eyes and said, “Yes you know you would use it as a weapon, so shut the f— up.”
“I felt the hate in his voice and his raging eyes. I can’t help but cry on this plane, because I thought people would defend me and say something. Some people just shook their heads in dismay,” Ahmad wrote on Facebook.
Ahmad told the Sun-Times she had been spat on and had her hijab ripped off in previous Islamophobic encounters.
But she said the flight attendant’s behavior was especially demeaning, because she was “publicly targeted as a threat to people.”
“That is very horrible feeling,” said Ahmad, who was raised in Morton Grove.
Ahmad said the flight attendant later apologized.
“The flight attendant also acknowledged that the man who yelled at me was wrong for doing so and apologized that her behavior led to that. She acknowledged it was unethical and said he never should have said anything,” she said.
Ahmad said the pilot also apologized and walked her to the service desk once the flight landed at Reagan National Airport, so she could file a formal complaint.
Ahmad said she was traveling to Washington D.C. to attend a conference that brings Israeli and Palestinian youth together “to promote peace and dialogue.”
Ahmad’s Facebook status detailing her ordeal was immediately shared by others, including prominent Muslim activists. Many also Tweeted their support with the hashtag #UnitedforTahera.
United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart said the company is reaching out to Ahmad to “get a better understanding of what occurred during the flight.”
Hobart also said United is discussing the matter that Ahmad described with Shuttle America, United’s regional partner that operated Flight 3504 from O’Hare Airport.
“United is a company that strongly supports diversity and inclusion, and we and our partners do not discriminate against our employees or customers,” Hobart said in his emailed statement.
As of noon Saturday, Ahmad said she had not been contacted by United representatives.