After denying Tahera Ahmad—a Northwestern University Muslim chaplain—an unopened Diet Coke because she could use it “as a weapon,” a flight attendant has been taken off United Airlines service.
Last Friday, social media lit up when Ahmad posted on Facebook about the encounter while still en route to Washington, D.C. “The flight attendant asked me what I would like to drink and I requested a can of diet coke. She brought me a can that was open so I requested an unopened can due to hygienic reasons,” Ahmad wrote.
She was refused, but a man nearby was given an unopened can of beer, despite the worker’s contention that airline policy was to only hand out opened cans. Ahmad’s protest prompted the flight attendant to say, “It’s so you don’t use it as a weapon.” A man nearby cosigned the woman’s statement, reportedly saying, “Yes, you know you would use it as a WEAPON so shut the f**k up.”
United Airlines and Republic Airways Holdings, which owns the flight operator Shuttle America, initially called the incident a “misunderstanding regarding a can of diet soda,” but released more strongly worded statements yesterday. United said: “After investigating this matter, United has ensured that the flight attendant, a Shuttle America employee, 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.”
Republic Airways says that the attendant, whose name as not been released, has been “removed from United Express flying,” and will have to complete additional sensitivity training before she can fly with other airlines in their network, including American Eagle, Delta and US Airways. An earlier statement from the company confirmed that “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.”
In a press conference yesterday, Ahmed Rehab, executive director of the Chicago chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, says Ahmad was wearing a hijab on the flight. Rehab called the situation “an act of discrimination that must be taken seriously,” and said that while the airlines’ statements were a “good first step,” they don’t go far enough. “Our goal is to ensure this doesn’t happen again, it isn’t to get any money, it isn’t to get anybody fired,” he said. His organization has requested a sit-down with United execs and have not taken legal action off the table.
“This isn’t about me and a soda can, it’s about systemic injustice that is perpetuated throughout our community,” Ahmad told The Guardian. “Ferguson happened, ‘black lives matter’ happened, and what is it these minority groups were saying? They were saying: understand my pain; understand my injustice. There is a lot of pain there. And I think that’s why this story resonates with so many people.”