Ethics Dunces, “What The Hell Is The Matter With You People?” Division: Everybody* On United’s Chicago-D.C. Flight Except Tahera Ahmad


Feared soda can hijacker Tahera Ahmad

I don’t understand how this episode could happen as it has been described. I am assuming for the purpose of the post that it did, and thus have almost nothing to add to the story other than to ask “What the hell is the matter with these people?”

Tahera Ahmad, an associate chaplain and director of interfaith engagement at Northwestern, described the alleged incident on Facebook while she was on the United flight from Chicago to Washington, D.C. Friday night.She wrote that she was in tears following an ugly episode that began with her request for a Diet Coke when the beverage service reached her row. 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.”

Then the same flight attendant gave another passenger an unopened can of beer. Ahmad said she asked why the man was given an unopened beverage can, but she was forbidden from having one. 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.”

Ahmad told the flight attendant she felt she was being discriminated against, and the flight attendant quickly grabbed the man’s beer can, opened it and said, “It’s so you don’t use it as a weapon.”  When Ahmad asked for support from other passengers,  a man sitting in an aisle across from her said, “You Muslim, you need to shut the fuck up,” Ahmad said.

“What?” a shocked Ahmad said. The passenger looked her in the face and said, “Yes you know you would use it as a weapon, so shut the fuck up.” “Some people just shook their heads in dismay,” Ahmad wrote on Facebook. But nobody rose to her defense.

After the flight, the attendant and the pilot apologized to her, and  United issued a lame mea culpa. It doesn’t matter. Everybody on the plane except for Tahera Ahmad should hang their heads in shame.

What the hell is United (or whoever made the “unopened can” policy, if there really is such a deranged policy) thinking? A can of soda is a weapon? There must be hundreds of things in carry-on luggage that would make a more plausible weapon than a soda can. Like pens. Like laptops. Like powercords. Like dop kits. Like electric razors.

Like fists and feet. Ridiculous.

Gee, I always thought they opened those cans to be nice…

What the hell was the flight attendant thinking? Making that excuse to Ahmad, and then handing a male passenger an unopened can right in front of  her? What an obvious insult!

What the hell was the man with the beer thinking? Why didn’t he stand up for Ahmad right then and there? Did he want his beer that much? What a craven jerk. I guess he didn’t want to get involved. The town in “High Noon” was filled with people like this, but I thought it was just anti-American propaganda.

What the hell was the crude, bigoted passenger thinking? She would use a can as a weapon? Nobody ever uses a can as weapon. Telling a woman to “shut the fuck up” like that…Where was this jerk raised, in Bull Connor’s house? What civilized American male is gratuitously insulting like that to a woman or anyone, except in “Mississippi Burning” or “Billy Jack”?

What the hell were the other attendants thinking? They are in charge of order on the plane; they can’t let that kind of abuse of a passenger pass. This is a breach of responsibility and duty. And also cowardly.

What the hell were the other passengers thinking? Why weren’t a slew of them in that passenger’s face, and reprimanding the flight attendant?

This isn’t the United States of America I thought I knew. The incident is not quite as bad as the incidents of bystanders ignoring muggings, beatings, child abuse and helpless people in distress, but it’s bad enough.


* UPDATE 1: Reader Jay Wohlman reminds me, correctly, that there undoubtedly were passengers who were unaware of the episode. By “everybody,” I do not mean to impugn them.

UPDATE 2: Here’s more from Slate, including the original Facebook post, and reports of a looming boycott. No action, coordinated or otherwise, is fair or justified until the basic facts of the complaint have been confirmed. Obviously something happened, and it was not about Diet Coke. By the way, I have occasionally asked for a full and unopened can, and been handed one without comment. But unlike this young woman, I don’t look like someone who wants to whip off a sock, stick the can in one, and start swinging. 


Pointer: memeorandum

54 thoughts on “Ethics Dunces, “What The Hell Is The Matter With You People?” Division: Everybody* On United’s Chicago-D.C. Flight Except Tahera Ahmad

  1. Jack. in answer to your questions – as a regular flyer on the oh-so-cheap United Airlines (of which I am NOT a fan):

    “What the hell is United (or whoever made the “unopened can” policy, if there really is such a deranged policy) thinking?”

    Answer: They’re thinking that ten or twelve unfinished cans per flight adds up to six bucks, and that’s $6000 per day, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

    “What the hell was the flight attendant thinking?”

    Answer: Almost certainly, he/she was thinking “this policy is complete bullshit, and any company that gave a shit about its customers would giver her exactly what she wants. But the Purser is on the other end of the cart and he/she is watching everything I do, and I’m new here and much as I think this is bullcrap I am NOT about to sacrifice my gig on mainline seven-threes and go back to that shitty regional line flying the Dash-8s.”

    “What the hell was the man with the beer thinking?”

    Answer: “Glad I paid for this beer. I mean, the last time I spent this much on a beer it was at a titty bar, but at least I get a full beer instead of a thimbleful of free soda, diluted with tears.”

    “What the hell was the crude, bigoted passenger thinking?”

    What he normally thinks. He’s an asshole. The only other assholes here are United Airlines management.

    “What the hell were the other attendants thinking?”

    Depending upon seniority, anywhere between “this is good for the bottom line” and “this is so fucking stupid…Please, God, let me be approved for that gig with Southwest.”

    “What the hell were the other passengers thinking?”

    Same thing I often do when I fly United Airlines: “how can these assholes treat their customers like this and still stay in business?”

    As Sigmund Freud is alleged to have said, “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” Don’t look for deeper meanings here. This has nothing to do with ethnic or cultural discrimination. This has everything to do with a shitty airline.

      • You are a customer. You are not staff. Though United Airlines would be a far better entity if you were.

          • You can register your complaint, Jack, and I’ll salute you for it. United Airlines is the equivalent of an aircraft carrier: powerful, a relic of a latter war, and it takes a staggering distance to bring it to a stop.

            Best advice I can give is to just plain stop flying them. I now do so only when I have no other choice. Get ’em in the wallet – that’s the only way to get their attention.

            • I swear that I would have crossed to that jerk and told him that he owed the woman an apology, as well as everyone who had top hear his foul mouth, and asked, loudly, why the attendant wasn’t doing her job, asking someone to take a video while I did. And I’m stunned that no passenger did that.

    • “They’re thinking that ten or twelve unfinished cans per flight adds up to six bucks, and that’s $6000 per day, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”


      Is the can not already paid for by the ticket purchaser, whether or not it is finished?

      But as for quantity of cans shlepped on any given day in the airline industry, isn’t it quite possible that tired stewardesses do occasionally miss opening a can here and there?

      Could this be a collision of mistakes and heightened sensitivities?

      I still really really find the claim of the “rude passenger”‘s comment highly suspect.

      • >>Is the can not already paid for by the ticket purchaser, whether or not it is finished?

        I believe the plain ticket pays for the soda itself, though not necessarily the the can. Soda servings are unlimited, but the attendants usually split the cans, pouring them into cups, to limit waste (hundred of half drunk “free” cans would indeed add up). They use cans instead of a fountain, due to the wonky air pressure changes. Beer and alcohol, however, costs extra; thus they bring you the whole can.

        The attendant is an idiot for coming up with such a dumb excuse that the can could be used as a weapon; I am positive that United would not have such a policy, though I haven’t checked… The economics I just described make such a policy impossible. He should have just said they do not provide whole cans to prevent waste. Instead, he seriously embarrassed the company on multiple levels.

        • Ah. It’s been awhile since I’ve flown, I didn’t recall, but now I do remember that indeed they only gave out half a can per customer. In which case, yes, the ticket theoretically pays for only half the contents of a can.

          • A red flag to a bull is like a woman in a hijab to a ______.

            The last time I flew (which, granted, was almost 40 years ago) it was with some frequency and on at least six different airlines since I was working outside the U.S. All non-alcoholic beverages were poured out by the flight attendant into plastic or paper cups. If they contained ice – which was usual, since the original containers hadn’t been refrigerated in a while, if at all – the amount came to about 1/3rd of a can or bottle. If you caught the steward(ess) on the way back, you could get another cupful. Or a third. I don’t recall any beer being served; just those cutesy little liquor bottles even teetotal passengers often took home for souvenirs. The only reason I ever heard on board for doing it that way (besides the obvious savings of money and waste: waste being an inflight no-no) was to prevent mess with the pouring in case of minor turbulence or the “explosion” of warmish carbonated liquids.

            Sounds like the system hasn’t changed; the airlines just added terror* to their excuses. If I were flying these days, I wouldn’t be flying … this is the twentieth or more incident I’ve heard of since a great deal of rational thought in America came tumbling down along with the Twin Towers that made me wish I’d been on board to witness and object vociferously (and I have a loud vocifer, too).

            *the terror appears to be inculcated into the flight attendants during training, and extended gratis to the susceptible passengers just by-the-way. The fear of flying that comes naturally to a lot of earthbound humans is now deniable, covered up by bitching and aggression and, too frequently, by plain panic. Stupid. Normal.

    • All I can go on is when I’ve aired out air travel grievances on the blog, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t exaggerated. If she didn’t make up the weaponized full can of Diet Coke part, then the rest seems completely plausible/

          • If a slob actually did.

            The quote isn’t actually applicable but it’s the first thing that came to mind. I need a quote that better describes:

            If you are pissed off about something that may very well have been a simple mistake and know that the grievance industry loves stuff like this, add some outrageous fluff to get attention.

            • I call it “doing an Orson Welles,” from the “War of the Worlds” and “Cradle Will Rock” gambits.

              But I think the default position is to assume that the aggrieved isn’t doing that. Especially on a plane, where many people could contradict her account and make her look terrible.

              • Given the scope of the grievance industry and the scope of bandwaggoners these days, I don’t know if that is a fair default position.

                If people on the plane knew this was a controversy. I’d never heard of this until you posted it.

  2. This story rings untrue. Why?

    1) I can’t think of a soul who, even if (s)he didn’t feel up to confronting the angry racist, wouldn’t have at least turned to her and said, “I’m sorry. What just happened to you is terrible.”

    2) Why no public comment from fellow passengers? Given that “racist” is the worst thing you can be called in this day and age, people like showing their tolerance bona fides. In fact, one can come by fame with remarkable ease by calling out a racist. If, as she suggests, many others heard this exchange and the terrible comments, it is surprising it wasn’t all over social media in an instant. Twitter brigades banish such people from polite society in a nanosecond. Perhaps she is exaggerating how many overheard, or perhaps she was actually being over-the-top and fellow passengers, sensing they were listening to someone from the professional grievance class, chose to say nothing. This is not her first rodeo, after all. CNN: “She said she has been spat on and had her hijab ripped off in Islamophobic encounters after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.”

    3) United’s statement is just about what I would write if I had to write something, but didn’t feel like getting into a he-said, she-said with someone who has misrepresented a series of events.

    4) The man’s comments are so cartoonishly vulgar, which is how comments in fake racist incidents often are.

    I don’t know this woman or anything about her. If this happened as she said, you are right. It is awful, and this was indeed a plane with an unusually high concentration of terrible human beings.

    I am pleased to report, however, that every single person I know is more civilized.

    • I generally agree VO. Which is why I began, “I don’t understand how this episode could happen as it has been described. I am assuming for the purpose of the post that it did…”

      • I generally accept the major details occurred. It is pretty isolating being called a terrorist on an airplane. She being understandably upset may not have noticed or fully recalled the reaction of other passengers. She may not have remembered the verbatim racist screed.

        In the article she says at least both the steward and the pilot personally apologized; I would find it very odd if there weren’t several other apologies mixed in from the crew or other passengers.

        • At the very least, the steward, being an idiot, likely would not have thought to apologize if not prompted by angry passengers or crew mates.

  3. Hmmm, hopefully someone else on the plane will come forward to confirm her story….but I’ve never been handed an unopened can of soda on a flight. They’re usually opened just before pouring the beverage into a plastic cup with ice, then whatever is remaining is given to me in the can. I assume it’s a common sense thing to avoid someone or something – whether a kid, turbulence, or otherwise – from shaking the can before opening, thereby spraying everyone in range.
    Some of the reported “conversation” seems a bit far fetched. For example, in another report on this story she said ” the pilot told her he recognized his “privilege” as a white man.” That’s just too PC babble to believe it’s real.

    • All PC babble is ridiculous, but increasingly people use it.

      I like the idea of using a shaken can of pop as a weapon, though. That’s something Moe, Larry and Curly might try.

      • I hadn’t seen the privilege comment until now – even MORE cartoonish. Does anyone outside of academia really toss around the word “privilege”? That word is now in the vernacular of AIRLINE PILOTS?

      • I imagine, when whatever braintrust think tank they put together to analyze potential threats got together, after eliminating finger nail clippers and toothpaste, they figured hey, a filled soda can swung inside a sock could be downright lethal (and it would be).

        Let’s not forget the LITANY of banned items on planes that would only be lethal in the hands of McGyver (who I think what the head of the think tank that made the list).

  4. Jack, FYI I live just up the street from Northwestern. Many people I know know Tahera Amhad. It is most unlikely that the story was made up or that she exaggerated.

  5. I’ve heard about people being nervous about people wearing religious headwear and whatever on planes, and I just want to scream.

    Nobody (of any religious persuasion or lack therof) who actually enters a plane with intent to hurt people or do something else wrong on a plane would EVER draw that much attention to themselves! Didn’t the 9/11 hijackers wear jeans and button-up shirts? Not only is someone wearing any kind of religiously significant clothing not any more likely to commit a crime, they might be the ONLY ones on the entire plane who you can be certain WON’T.

    I’ve tried to push most insults out of my vocabulary, but… God, what is wrong with these idiots?

  6. Every so often, the right conditions reveal what soft, cowardly scum the products of modern civilization really are, by and large. Maybe her commandeering that plane and running it into the ocean wouldn’t have been that much of a tragedy.

    • I think that the people who are molesting us “for our own good” know very well that someone with hostile intent is very likely to succeed, despite any expensive, elaborate, and inconvenient measures. You would be amazed at what can be made into a deadly weapon. It’s all about control. Meanwhile, actual terrorists are walking across the border.

  7. There is no way in hell this happened in the way it was described. Just no way. People do not act like this, and when they do there are witnesses and generally someone whips out a cameraphone. The social justice warriors have a nasty habit of making up persecution tales in order to further their narrative and I have no doubt this is another example.

    Maybe she asked for an unopened soda and the attendant told her that it was regulation to open the can for the passenger for security reasons. I happen to know that is a real thing. Maybe the passenger next to her made a joke about her using it as a weapon, not really meaning any offense. And then the hysterical left-wing activist concocted the entire scene in her head and took it to Twitter.

    I find this WAY more plausible than her version of events.

    • Facebook, not Twitter. You are presuming an entire set of character traits and misconduct based on what? A headdress? A university position? Someone making up a story whole cloth like you suggest is taking a huge professional risk, don’t you think? Why do that over a diet Coke? Are you suggesting she’s insane? On what basis? You can’t claim that a unicorn rushed down the aisle of a 757 and assume nobody present will come forward and dispute it. I just saw the story on CNN. If it is as much a fabrication as you suggest, we will know it.

      • That’s why I think the truth lies somewhere in between.

        Like I said, my initial reservations on this are that I haven’t seen a social media rant about personal grievance that isn’t laced with exaggeration. Along the lines of Rich’s analysis above, I think this probably started with a simple mistake that tweaked the sensibilities of someone, then maybe a sideways glance or a rude-but-less-rude-than-reported comment was overheard, then we have what unfolds.

        I can easily see a royally pissed off person quickly conjuring in their minds and making a connection where “here’s what his look felt like he was thinking” turning into “here’s what he said to me”. I’ve seen it happen often with my friends…I’ll witness some minor confrontation they are in then hearing their recollections of it later is like reading a well written fiction in which a modicum of the original story is present. I’ve called them out on it, too.

  8. This is the second tidbit presented recently on idiotic behaviors on an airplane with either the flight crew and/or passengers.

    I have a son who is a pilot for a legacy carrier and oh the stories! Reality is with employees that need to be cut from the herd and passengers who are angry, frustrated, childish or just plain idiots poor behaviors surface.

    The real issue is two-fold: (1). How the company responds and (2) how group behavior responds.

  9. I always ask for a cup with no ice with my beverage, so the can is always handed to me unopened, on it’s side with the cup over the top – since I’m almost always in the window seat. It’s a stretch for the attendant and handing it end to end makes it easier. So – not sure what she’s saying about it being a “weapon”.

    Though – I do wonder how sharp of a shiv a person could make with an aluminum can by tearing the metal. I’m thinking that cans are about to be banned and replaced with miniature plastic bottles.

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