Illinois Woman Says United “Trivialized” Discrimination Claim

“This is not about a can of diet soda,” said Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim chaplain and director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University

A woman whose Facebook post over an unopened can of diet soda on a United Airlines flight has sparked a debate about discrimination said she is disappointed in the airline’s response to her claims.

Tahera Ahmad, a Muslim chaplain and director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern University, asked for an unopened can of soda last week on a flight from Chicago to Washington D.C. A flight attendant told her it was against the airline’s policy to serve unopened beverages, despite Ahmad’s concerns about hygiene.

When a man next to her received an unopened can of beer and Ahmad questioned the flight attendant about her own beverage, Ahmad said she was told it was because she “would use it as a weapon.”

The comment was one that left Ahmad stunned and prompted more hateful comments from a fellow passenger.

"At that point I just felt like crawling into my seat and I had tears in my eyes," she told NBC Chicago. "It was utter humiliation."

United Airlines flight 3504 was operated by Shuttle America, which is owned by Republic Airways Holdings, which said in a statement Monday that the company doesn't enforce rules about serving unopened cans.

"There is no policy difference in serving alcoholic or non-alcoholic canned beverages to passengers. There is no differentiation between opened and unopened beverages, and there is no policy suggesting what may or may not be done with a container," the Republic Airways statement read.

United Airlines responded to Ahmad’s claims over the weekend, calling the incident “a misunderstanding regarding a can of diet soda” and apologizing for "not delivering the service our customers expect."

"This is not about a can of diet soda," Ahmad told NBC Chicago on Monday. "This is about telling a passenger 30,000 feet above the ground that they might use [the can] as a weapon against other passengers and targeting them and profiling them in a way that really makes the place unsafe, not only for that passenger but for the passengers, you know, who are sitting around her.”

Ahmad said the statement "trivialized" the issue.

“[United] has the opportunity to really create a learning moment for all of Americans,” Ahmad said. “I really believe that if people understand each other and each other’s stories this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. I will not fly United until they recognize that this kind of discrimination should not happen. This is unfortunate and this should never happen.”

United Airlines spokesman Charlie Hobart told NBC News that the company has "apologized for not providing the experience that our customers expect."

Ahmad said her message was not intended to punish the flight attendant, but rather to create a discussion about discrimination.

“United can’t simply say that they stand for diversity inclusion on paper," she said. "You know this needs to be something that’s enacted upon."

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