An upcoming partnership between Delta Air Lines and Saudi Arabian Airlines is raising ethical questions over how cozy American firms should get with foreign governments or carriers that have practiced discrimination.
Delta isn’t the only airline confronted with the problem, Michael Salberg of the Anti-Defamation said. But its agreement with the government-owned Saudi carrier has highlighted the issue, which ignited a firestorm last week after several publications reported erroneously that Delta would bar Jewish passengers from joint or “codeshared” flights to Saudi Arabia.
While those reports proved untrue and, in some cases, were retracted, the controversy focused attention on a far broader issue — American airlines, including Delta, that conduct business with foreign airlines serving the kingdom.
Saudi authorities have a spotty record in treating Jewish passengers, who were banned from the country in the past, and have often seized non-Muslim religious objects brought to the country, said Salberg, ADL’s director of international affairs. Knowing of those practices, Salberg added, “U.S. carriers are going along with them.”
In Delta’s case, the partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines is actually part of a Jan. 10 agreement allowing the Saudi company to join SkyTeam, the 14-member global airline alliance, beginning next year. But the Atlanta-based Delta welcomed the partnership in a statement last January and, according to some reports, voted in favor of it.
The story erupted last week after World Net Daily, a conservative website largely known for promoting “birther” theories about President Barack Obama, claimed that Delta would bar Jewish passengers from Saudi-bound flights, along with anyone whose passport included an Israeli visa stamp. Both the headline and the story referred to a “no-Jew” fly policy, an assertion picked up — and later retracted — by other, more mainstream media outlets.
For its part, Delta only added to the confusion in its first response to the controversy. The company’s statement said that Delta neither practices nor condones discrimination. But it added that Delta, like all international airlines, “must comply with all applicable laws governing entry into every country it serves.” The statement also noted that those requirements are dictated by the country’s government, not by the airlines, saying, in effect, that such matters are beyond Delta’s control.
A second statement, issued the next day, said Delta has never operated service to Saudi Arabia, “does not codeshare with any airline on flights to that country, and doesn’t intend to do so in the future.”
Codesharing refers to a business arrangement in which two airlines share the same flight numbers, offering several benefits to the carriers and passengers. Delta also said it had no plan to share frequent-flier miles with Saudi Arabian Airlines.
Instead, a Delta spokesman, Trebor Banstetter, told The Jewish Week that the airline’s relationship with the Saudi company goes no farther than other standard interline agreements, allowing Delta to sell tickets to any of its partner’s flights and to transfer bags to and from the Saudi carrier.
Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst with the Forrester Group, an independent research organization, believes that Delta is trying to distance itself from the Saudi carrier.
“While Delta and Air France voted to allow Saudi Arabian Airlines into SkyTeam,” he said, “Delta is taking a very reserved approach to its relationship” with the foreign airline. “Delta understands that the government of Saudi Arabia has very restrictive policies that we, as Americans, might find objectionable.”
But another transportation expert told The Jewish Week that in any airline alliance, the members “always codeshare with each other.” Delta’s decision not to codeshare suggests that the airline wants to avoid bad publicity, said the expert, who preferred to remain anonymous because he wants to remain on good terms with Delta.
Asked when Delta made its decision, Banstetter said he couldn’t discuss “internal business decisions.” That leaves open the question of whether Delta made the decision in January, when SkyTeam signed its agreement with the Saudi carrier, or after the controversy erupted last week. It’s also anyone’s guess as to whether Delta officials even considered the ramifications of a partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines.
The controversy also led to a statement from the Saudi Embassy in Washington, which said its government “does not deny visas to U.S. citizens based on their religion.” Saudi officials also dismissed suggestions that they bar entry to anyone whose passport is stamped with an Israeli visa.
But Saudi authorities have barred Jews in the past, the Saudi visa application still includes a question about religion and, although anecdotal evidence is mixed, Jewish defense organizations have said that, in practice, discrimination continues. The U.S. State Department’s travel advisory for Saudi Arabia reflects that picture, noting reports by U.S. citizens who “were refused a Saudi visa because their passports reflected travel to Israel or indicated that they were born in Israel.”
Jeffrey Lovitky, a Washington attorney involved with the issue, has firsthand knowledge of many of those reports. In a phone interview last week, he spoke of one friend, the director of a Jewish organization in the area, who traveled to Saudi Arabia but was asked to write “Christian” on his visa application. When the friend protested, the sponsor of his trip suggested that he write “non-applicable” instead.
Lovitky is so disturbed by Delta’s partnership with the Saudi airline that he wrote to Delta’s CEO, Richard H. Anderson, and to members of the company’s board to protest the agreement as soon as he learned of it. In more recent days, he has helped elevate the issue by talking to several media outlets, including World Net Daily.
The ADL’s Salberg said his organization has received mixed reports on how the Saudis have treated Jewish travelers, some of whom say they’ve encountered no problem. But if Jewish travel to the kingdom “is okay in some circumstances,” he added, “it should be welcome in all circumstances.”
Salberg welcomed the Saudi statement on the subject, saying he took it “on face value,” but noted that it failed to address concerns that non-Muslim religious articles, like Bibles, Stars of David and tefillin, may be confiscated in the country.
“There shouldn’t be uncertainty about this,” said Salberg, who spoke to The Jewish Week after the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, wrote to Delta’s CEO. “We shouldn’t be having this conversation. Here’s an opportunity for the Saudis to make things clear.”
An ADL press release on the subject said the organization “is making similar appeals to United Airlines and other American carriers who service Saudi Arabian destinations either on their own or through code-share partnerships.” United and two other American carriers, Continental and U.S. Airways, are part of the 27-member Star Alliance, which serves Saudi Arabia through Lufthansa. American Airlines belongs to Oneworld, the third global alliance, which serves the kingdom through British Airways.
If the Saudis don’t come out with a clear policy, Salberg would advise U.S. carriers to cancel their partnerships with airlines that fly to Saudi Arabia. “You shouldn’t do by indirection what you’re committed not to do directly,” Salberg said.