Monday, June 27, 2011

An Analysis of the Delta Airlines Controversy

After writing about the news that Delta Airlines was supporting Saudi Arabian Airlines' partnership in the SkyTeam Alliance, I have been flooded with email messages -- both in support of what I wrote and criticizing me for starting a false rumor.

I have been contacted directly by Delta Airlines and the Saudi Embassy in Washington. I have received messages from individuals wishing to petition or boycott Delta Airlines. I have also been scolded for picking on one airline when many airlines are part of similar agreements with discriminatory countries. This story certainly played to people's emotions and it went viral quickly. In only a couple days my Huffington Post article has been "liked" over 7,500 times, I've been quoted in USA Today, and interviewed by CNN. I believe there is still a lot of misinformation going around concerning this partnership, but there have also been some clarifications since I posted my article. Rather than retracting what I wrote or removing that post entirely, I will attempt to clarify my views based upon all the information I currently have.

I first got wind of this story when a friend posted a link to the World Net Daily article titled "Delta adopts Saudi 'no-Jew' fly policy." The article explained that Delta was adding Saudi Arabian Airlines to the SkyTeam Alliance and this would require the American carrier to ban Jews and holders of Israeli passports from boarding flights from New York or Washington bound for Jeddah. It also said that former U.S. Representative Fred Grandy (also formerly known as "Gopher" on "The Love Boat") was presenting this matter to Congress.

Now, I am well aware that World Net Daily is a far-right, Conservative news website and I take its content with a grain of salt. However, it did publish two letters from Delta's customer service coordinator which explained the company's position. Further, I did my own research and read through Delta's press release dated January 10, 2011, in which Delta offers its support of Saudi Arabian Airlines joining the SkyTeam Alliance. I also spoke with individuals who understand the function of the SkyTeam Alliance and they told me that Delta would be "code sharing" with Saudi Arabian Airlines. I was also curious about who owns Saudi Arabian Airlines so I contacted an authority in the airline industry who told me that it was owned and operated by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Based on this information I posted the story to this blog and to the Huffington Post.

What follows are some corrections and explanations based on statements made by Delta Airlines and the Saudi Arabian Embassy after I posted my article:

1) TITLE: I based the title of my blog post on the World Net Daily's article title ("Delta adopts Saudi 'no-Jew' fly policy"). This was a sensational title and was misleading. Delta did not adopt Saudi Arabia's policy and Delta does not discriminate. In my article I clearly stated that Delta does not discriminate, but that my concern was that Delta was supporting membership in the SkyTeam Alliance by an airline run by a discriminatory country.

2) DOES IT MATTER?: I've had numerous people ask me if this even matters since most Jews are not planning on traveling to Saudi Arabia anyway. "I guess we're not flying Delta to Riyadh for Passover" was a common cynical comment I received. While it is certainly true that Jewish men and women tend to fly to Miami, Aspen, Palm Springs or Israel for Hajj and not to Mecca and Medina, it's still the principle that Saudi Arabia does not issue visas to Jews, Israelis or individuals with an Israeli stamp on their passport. Again, like other Muslim countries that do not issue visas to Jews, there are exceptions and I stated that clearly. I also understand that King Abdullah is working to reform his country and make good on his public commitment to interreligious dialogue in Madrid, but that he's having a difficult time in doing so.

3) WELL, OTHERS DO IT TOO!: I've never liked this defense. It sounds like something a fifth grader would claim when he gets into trouble. Even if other airlines and other airline alliances code-share and do business with Saudi Arabian Airlines, it doesn't make it right that Delta is. I recognize that American businesses and the American government have alliances with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I know that we have military bases there. I know that we get a lot of our oil from them. I have seen the video of our last American president walking hand-in-hand with their king and I have seen the video of our current American president bowing down in front of their king. The fact remains that the majority of the 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia and it is a nation that discriminates against women and non-Muslims.

4) SO WHY PICK ON DELTA?: I don't have anything personal against Delta Airlines. However, it was Delta that was singled out in the World Net Daily article and Delta's press release supporting Saudi Arabian Airlines joining the SkyTeam Alliance that I read. Further, as I mentioned in my post, I live in Detroit which has been a Delta hub ever since Delta bought Northwest Airlines. I fly Delta often because most of the flights in and out of Detroit are operated by Delta. So, it was disconcerting to me that the airline I use the most is welcoming Saudi Arabia's national airline into the alliance it founded.

5) CODE-SHARING: When I wrote the original article, I was informed that Delta's alliance with Saudi Arabian Airlines would include a code-sharing agreement. It was explained to me by those in the industry that this would mean that a traveler could book a flight to Saudi Arabia on a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight through Delta. I even surmised that this could also mean that travelers would be awarded SkyMiles from Delta for their travel to Saudi Arabia. I never suspected that Delta would refuse travel to a Jewish person or an Israeli national. However, this alliance did not sit well with me because it was Delta getting too close to the airline of a discriminatory country. Based on Delta's most recent press release about this matter, it appears that there is no code-sharing agreement with Saudi Arabian Airlines.

6) DELTA'S RESPONSE: Delta seemed to backpedal on this alliance after the public outcry. Delta's customer service coordinator Kathy Johnston's response seemed to pass the buck: "While we fully understand and sympathize with your concerns, Delta has no control over the actions of the United States or any foreign country. If the government of Saudi Arabia engages in discriminatory practices in the issuance of travel documents to U.S. citizens, this is a matter which must be addressed with a local embassy as appropriate or with the U.S. State Department." Only after this controversy went viral did Delta issue a stronger statement fully explaining the nature of its partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines via the SkyTeam Alliance.

7) SAUDI ARABIAN EMBASSY RESPONSE: In short, I don't buy it. The Saudi embassy claims that the "Rumors being circulated via the Internet regarding passenger flight restrictions on Saudi Arabian Airlines are completely false." It is well known that one cannot get a visa to Saudi Arabia with a point of entry stamp from Tel Aviv on ones passport. This is discriminatory. If other countries have the same policy, that makes them wrong too, but it is not an excuse for Saudi Arabia to follow this practice. Saudi Arabia also does not allow non-Muslim religious articles in its country. They have discriminatory practices when it comes to women's rights. All of these issues should have raised a red flag when Delta considered supporting Saudi Arabian Airlines admission to the SkyTeam Alliance (even if other airlines had followed suit with SkyTeam Alliance or any of the other airline alliances).

8) JUST GET A NEW PASSPORT: Many individuals have simply said that it's not a big deal if Saudi Arabia refuses entry to its country with a passport showing a previous trip to Israel. "Just get a new passport," they say. It's the principle here. And if Israel is denying entry to those who've visited the Palestinian Authority (in violation of the 1995 Oslo II accord), then they should correct that policy as well).

The bottom line is that I didn't pick on Delta maliciously. I am not happy that other airlines have partnership agreements with Saudi Arabian Airlines either. I wrote about Delta because they were the focus of an article I read and they were the Airline that posted a press release on the Web supporting Saudi Arabian Airlines's admission to the SkyTeam Alliance (which Delta founded). While the title of my post was misleading and inaccurate, I still believe that Delta (and any other airline in the SkyTeam alliance) is making a mistake by becoming a partner with an airline run by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Perhaps the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman's letter to Delta sums it up best:

We understand that Delta, as any airline, is required to comply with the visa requirements of the destination country,” wrote Foxman in a letter to Delta CEO Richard H. Anderson. “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.

While this practice affects all travelers who previously visited Israel, it has a disproportionate impact on Jewish passengers. Moreover, Saudi Arabia also bars anyone from bringing into Saudi Arabia religious ritual objects, including religious texts, from any faith other than Islam, effectively banning religiously observant Jews from entering the country.

We expect Delta, and any other American airline which flies to Riyadh or partners with an airline that flies there, to ensure that its passengers -- whatever their faith -- not be discriminated against, and that no American airline in any way enable, or facilitate this discrimination, whatever the regulations of Saudi Arabia.


Joel Ungar said...

Kudos for an outstanding follow up post.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Here is the application for a visa to visit Saudi Arabia. You can see where one has to provide ones religion.

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Here is an article from BBC News from February 27, 2004. This article demonstrates that Jews are not welcome in Saudi Arabia and that the Saudi Embassy only removed that rule from its website under pressure.

Jews barred in Saudi tourist drive

Israelis and Jews not welcome
Saudi Arabia is barring visits by Jews after launching a new visa scheme to try to attract more tourists.

The Saudi tourism department website said tourist visas would not be issued to Israeli passport holders or Jews.

Earlier this month, it began a drive to attract more foreign visitors by issuing visas to non-Muslim tourists for the first time.

It has traditionally only issued visas for work purposes, officially-approved visits and pilgrimage to Mecca.

There has not previously been an explicit ban on Jews travelling to Saudi Arabia, though people with Israeli passports or with Israeli stamps in their documents, have not been allowed in.

Move condemned

A page on the Supreme Commission for Tourism website originally said visas would not be issued to Israeli passport holders or those with a passport containing an Israeli stamp; "those who don't abide by the Saudi traditions concerning appearance and behaviours"; "those under the influence of alcohol"; or "Jewish people".

Visas will not be issued for... Jewish people
Supreme Commission for Tourism website. The page was later amended, removing details of the restrictions.

US Congressman Anthony Weiner denounced the prohibition against Jews and called on the US government to take action.

"It is very difficult to see the Saudis as anything other than a backward country with backward ideals and this reaffirms that," Mr Weiner said.

"I think the administration should take a hard look at this website and decide whether a country that has these policies should be considered our ally."

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

This is the response individuals are receiving after inquiring about the Delta partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines through the SkyTeam Alliance:

Thank you for sharing your concerns regarding Saudi Arabian Airlines and their participation in the SkyTeam alliance.

We certainly understand the concerns expressed in your communication and I appreciate this opportunity to emphasize that Delta Air Lines does not discriminate nor do we condone discrimination against any of our customers in regards to age, race, nationality, religion, or gender. Additionally, please know Delta does not operate service to Saudi Arabia and does not codeshare with any airline on flights to that country. Delta does not intend to codeshare or share reciprocal benefits, such as frequent flier benefits, with Saudi Arabian Airlines, which we have confirmed with SkyTeam, an Amsterdam-based 14-member global airline alliance.

Delta’s only agreement with Saudi Arabian Airlines is a standard industry interline agreement, which allows passengers to book tickets on multiple carriers, similar to the standard interline agreements American Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines have with Saudi Arabian Airlines. All of the three global airline alliances – Star, which includes United Airlines; oneworld, which includes American Airlines, and SkyTeam, which includes Delta – have members that fly to Saudi Arabia and are subject to that country’s rules governing entry.

We appreciate the time you have taken to share this feedback.


Lindsay Jackson
Coordinator, Customer Care
Delta Air Lines

Anonymous said...

So, if I as a Catholic visit the Holy Land or Israel, and have an Israeli stamp on my passport, I cannot go to Saudi Arabia? Who would want to? I wear a Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. It has a Christian Cross, on it. Saudi Arabians would then, discriminate against me too. Hatefulness is hatefulness. No matter who is doing it. I will pray to the Lord, Our God, on this matter. Thanks for your article on FB.