The executives at Delta Airlines have apparently never heard the old joke about landing a plane in the Middle Eastern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It is the one where the pilot announces, “Welcome to Saudi Arabia, please set your watches back a thousand years.” The backward Saudi kingdom will in fact gain a new business partner in Delta, which has dug its heels in on its decision to allow Saudi Arabian Airlines (SAA) to join its Sky Team Alliance, despite the fact that such a relationship may put the American carrier in a position of having to ban Jews or holders of Israeli passports from boarding flights in New York or Washington, D.C. bound for Jeddah.
Despite denials by Delta last Friday in a written statement explaining that the carrier “does not discriminate nor do we condone discrimination against any of our customers in regards to age, race, nationality, religion or gender,” the company is seemingly engaged in semantic hair-splitting. While saying that Delta neither operates directly in Saudi Arabia nor engages in “code-sharing“ (one carrier markets service and places its passengers on another carrier’s flights) with airlines that serve that country, Delta’s agreement with SAA allows passengers to book tickets on multiple airlines. Furthermore, the American carrier admits that “it’s important to realize that visa requirements to enter any country are dictated by that nation’s government, not the airlines, and they apply to anyone entering the country regardless of whether it’s by plane, bus or train,” a Delta spokesman wrote on the company’s blog.
Which brings up the obvious question: why is Delta engaging in this agreement in the first place? Washington attorney Jeffrey Lovitky, who discovered the arrangement in the midst of making travel plans, wrote two letters to Delta CEO Richard Anderson, noting that an official website for the kingdom, the Supreme Commission for Tourism, said visas will not be issued to the following groups of people:
An Israeli passport holder or a passport that has an Israeli arrival/departure stamp; Those who don’t abide by the Saudi traditions concerning appearance and behaviors; Those under the influence of alcohol will not be permitted into the Kingdom; There are certain regulations for pilgrims and you should contact the consulate for more information; Jewish People
Anderson didn’t reply to Lovitky, but airline customer care coordinator Kathy M. Johnston did. And once again, the hair-splitting was evident. While the aforementioned company non-discrimination policy was part of the response, Johnston conceded that the airline must “comply with all applicable laws in every country it serves,” and if the “government of Saudi Arabia engages in discriminatory practices… this is a matter which must be addressed with a local embassy as appropriate, or the U.S. State Department.” When Mr. Lovitky pressed the issue, he received a second response from Ms. Johnston that was virtually the same as the first, with the addition of “we respectfully consider this matter closed and we will not be responding to this matter again.”
Delta may consider the matter closed, but Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) does not. He has taken up the cause presented to Congress and the public by former congressman and radio talk show host Fred Grandy, who first sounded the alarm regarding “creeping Sharia.” Grandy’s wife, Catherine, was even more direct. “It looks like Delta will be the first Sharia-compliant airline in the United States,” she said. Thus, last Friday, Senator Kirk wrote a letter to Federal Aviation Administration Administrator J. Randolph Babbit, asking him to “determine whether Delta Airlines violated US law or regulation and to ensure no US citizen is denied their right to fly solely on the basis of their religion.”
As for Congress itself, the issue remains under the radar at this juncture. And a previous attempt to address Saudi Arabian anti-Semitism, known as the Saudi Arabia Accountability Act, part of which was aimed at halting “the issuance of visas to citizens of Saudi Arabia until the President certifies that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia does not discriminate in the issuance of visas on the basis of religious affiliation or heritage, and for other purposes,” never became law, despite being presented to two different sessions of Congress in 2007 and 2009.
Is this story a proverbial tempest in a teapot? The government of Saudi Arabia issued a statement saying, “[R]umors being circulated via the Internet regarding passenger flight restrictions on Saudi Arabian Airlines are completely false. The government of Saudi Arabia does not deny visas to U.S. citizens based on their religion.” Yet Travel.State.Gov, a Service Bureau of Consular Affairs for the U.S. State Department, reports that “there have been reports by U.S. citizens that they were refused a Saudi visa because their passports reflected travel to Israel or indicated that they were born in Israel.” Furthermore, as this Saudi Arabian travel document reveals, divulging one’s religion is a requirement for entering the country. The Saudi Arabian embassy claims this is necessary in order to determine who is granted access — as in Muslims only — to the country’s holy sites. The embassy also explained that it does not issue visas to Israeli citizens because they do not recognize Israel itself.
Anti-Defamation League leader Abraham Foxman was not assuaged. ”We understand that Delta, as any airline, is required to comply with the visa requirements of the destination country,” he wrote in a letter to Delta’s CEO. “However, Saudi Arabia’s past practice of banning travelers with an ‘Israel’ stamp in their passport from gaining entry into the country runs contrary to the spirit and intent of Delta’s non-discrimination policy.”
Still, some people think criticism of Delta is unwarranted. ”Delta has been unfairly singled out,” said Jewish-American travel expert Henry Harteveldt. ”We may find a lot of Saudi Arabia’s policies unpleasant and not agree with them, but any airline flying into any country is obliged to act by the rules of that country.” Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, claims he’s known Jewish-American businessmen as well as businessmen with Jewish-sounding names who were allowed entry into the country, and who were not “harassed” while they were there. Yet he admitted that “according to the State Department, no religious practices other than Islam are allowed to be practiced openly in Saudi Arabia.” Business travel columnist Joe Brancatelli believes the story may have been blown out of proportion, yet he poses the fundamental question: “Does Delta want to be in business with an airline whose government has policies we find repugnant?”
As of now, the answer is yes. Yet in fairness, two things should be noted. One, the original report cited by many news organizations last week comes from religionnews.com, which has pulled the story off its website, and travel.usatoday.com, which re-posted the story on Thursday, now claims the “story contained incomplete information and has been removed.” Secondly, at least one other airline, United, has a code-share agreement with SAA.
Delta, which hardly needs an additional dose of bad publicity following its decision to charge soldiers returning from Afghanistan $200 apiece for extra baggage (later rescinded), has apparently put itself in the eye of yet another self-inflicted storm. Adding to the corporate tone-deafness is their insistence on answering all criticism with the boilerplate quote, “Delta does not discriminate nor do we condone discrimination…etc.,” echoed yet again by spokesman Trebor Barnstetter in an email to Fox News. And Barnstetter once again engaged in hair-splitting when he said that “Delta’s only agreement with Saudi Arabian Airlines is a standard industry interline agreement,” saying further that Delta “does not intend to code-share or share reciprocal benefits, such as frequent flier benefits, with Saudi Arabian Airlines.” One can only wonder why not, if the arrangement to allow SAA to join the 14-member Sky Team Alliance is as uncontroversial as Delta claims it is.
Delta is certainly not off the hook. In response to this story, Colby M. May, director and senior counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice warned, “As we learn more about the issue and facts, we are determined to ensure that American citizens do not face discrimination by airlines like Delta that are passenger code-sharing with Saudi Arabian Airlines,” adding, “We will be communicating our position with members of Congress, the State Department and Delta Air Lines to ensure that the rights of American citizens are protected.”
Meanwhile, consumers will make up their own minds as to whether or not this controversy will affect their choice of carriers when they decide to fly. If reader comments at a variety of websites are any indication, Delta has another major public relations headache on its corporate hands. Although the decision to accommodate a carrier with anti-Semitic policies was surely influenced by the pressures of a weak economy and high fuel prices, measured against the cost of alienating thousands of other potential customers, Delta’s thinking becomes impossible to understand.
Arnold Ahlert is a contributor to the conservative website JewishWorldReview.com.