Questions For Delta Airlines About Its Partnership With Saudi Arabian Airlines, And Treatment of Israelis and Jews

Politics & Current Events

This story is breaking as I write this, and some of the details are in dispute. But the facts appear to be these:

1. Delta Airlines is entering into a partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines through SkyTeam, a group of "code-sharing" airlines.

2. Saudi Arabian Airlines, owned and controlled by the Saudi government, enforces a number of the Saudi government's restrictions on travelers. One of these is a prohibition on non-Islamic religious materials:

Items and articles belonging to religions other than Islam are also prohibited. These may include Bibles, crucifixes, statues, carvings, items with religious symbols such as the Star of David, and others. Makkah and Medina hold special religious significance and only persons of the Islamic faith are allowed entry.

3. Saudi Arabian Airlines also enforces Saudi Arabia's ban on entry by citizens of Israel or people who have Israeli stamps in their passports (that is, people who have traveled to Israel).

4. Today USA Today reported, and then withdrew, claims that Saudi Arabian Airlines sometimes prevents Jews — or people it believes to be Jews — from flying. A USA Today blog later printed claims that some Jews have been able to travel to Saudi Arabia without incident. Though some sources continue to assert that Saudi Arabia and Saudi Arabian Airlines have some kind of "no Jews" policy, I submit there is grounds to ask for proof on this issue.

5. Delta's response to date has been to say that it is bound by the travel restrictions of the countries to which it flies, but not to clarify what it understands Saudi Arabian Airlines' rules are or will be.

Based on that, I have some questions for Delta Airlines, an American company, to determine my position on its policy, and whether it merits a boycott:

1. Is it your understanding that Saudi Arabian Airlines does not permit Israelis, or people with Israeli passport stamps, to fly with them?

2. Have you conducted any due diligence to determine whether there is cause to believe that Saudi Arabian Airlines excludes fliers it believes are Jewish?

3. When you are partnered with Saudi Arabian Airlines through SkyTeam, what (if anything) will be your role in connection with travelers attempting to book flights to Saudi Arabia?
(a) Will customers be able to book travel on Saudi Arabian Airlines through your web site or other facilities?
(b) Will Delta advertisements include information about flights on Saudi Arabian Airlines?
(c) Will any Saudi Arabian Airlines flights be branded as Delta flights, or vice-versa?
(d) Will any Delta web sites, advertisements, phone systems, or information materials include warnings regarding restrictions on Israelis or people with Israeli passports, or about non-Islamic religious materials?
(e) Will any Delta employees have any role in inspecting passports to prevent Israelis, or people with Israeli stamps on their passports, from checking in, clearing security, or boarding Saudi Arabian Airlines flights?
(f) Will any Delta employees have any role in preventing people from boarding with non-Islamic religious materials?

4. Does Delta partner with any other airline that prohibits nationals of a particular country from flying? Does Delta partner with any other airline that offers flights to a destination country that prohibits nationals of a particular country from flying?

5. If someone provides Delta with credible evidence that, at least on some occasions, Saudi Arabian Airlines prohibits people from flying because it believes those people are Jewish, will Delta continue its partnership with them?

6. Is Delta proud of its partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines?

Answering these questions might help defuse this public relations crisis.

Or not . . . .

Edited to add: to be a little less coy, I think that if the whole "Jews can't fly" thing is an internet hoax — certainly possible — then there's no reason for Delta not to come out strongly and say so immediately. Even if that part is a hoax, though, I think the other questions — about what role Delta will take, if any, in Saudi Arabian Airlines policy of excluding Israelis and religious materials — are apt.

Edited again: At Volokh Conspiracy, David Kopel has thoughts about the evidence of any anti-Jewish policy and the role of Delta. Also at Hot Air.

Edited a third time: If Delta merely checked whether passengers have a visa from Saudi Arabia (which would necessarily involve Saudi Arabia checking to see if they had an Israeli passport, or an Israeli stamp on their passport), that would be different; I leave it to you to discuss how different.

Last 5 posts by Ken White

11 Comments

11 Comments

  1. eddie  •  Jun 23, 2011 @7:14 pm

    A few things:

    a) Saudi Arabian Airlines (hereafter Saudia, which was its official name from 1972-1996 and is still its callsign) does not enforce the prohibitions on religious articles, any more than US Airways enforces American prohibitions on cocaine. Such matters are handled by the respective customs agencies of the respective countries. Yes, Saudia is owned by the Saudi government, but that doesn't mean that everything the government does is done by their airline.

    Saudia's website informs you of the customs restrictions because, well, if you're on their website that's the kind of helpful information you really need to know.

    b) Similarly, Saudia doesn't enforce the restrictions on allowing Israeli travelers to enter the country. As with the US, that's done by immigration officials. Note that in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (hereafter KSA or the Kingdom) immigration and customs are two separate groups of people. Customs will rip open your luggage and go through it looking for whiskey and porn, after which Immigration will stamp your passport and force your women into a cordoned-off area waiting for their responsible males to come and vouch for them. No joke. Really, they do this.

    c) This whole thing started with the WorldNetDaily article, which is as absent of relevant facts as it is replete with sensational claims. Then came the original USA Today article, which you can see a copy of here: http://pajamasmedia.com/tatler/2011/06/23/dont-try-carrying-a-bible-on-a-delta-flight-to-saudi-arabia/ . You'll note that it basically just repeats claims from the WDN article.

    The USA Today article eventually got taken down, with the headline "Airline code-sharing agreement causes confusion" and copy stating "An early version of this story contained incomplete information and has been removed." Note it hasn't been replaced by anything, because there's NOTHING OF ACTUAL NEWSWORTHINESS to replace it. It still has a link to a USA Today blog post, which has been silently updated several times in the past few hours, grudgingly getting less sensational and hesitantly providing more facts.

    Of course, all that matters on the Internet is DELTA HATEZ JEWZ so that's all that anyone actually has heard so far.

    d) Delta's policy regarding foreign travel is, oddly enough, on their foreign travel web page: http://www.delta.com/planning_reservations/plan_flight/international_travel_information/visa_passport_information/index.jsp "A travel visa is required to enter many countries. Prior to boarding an international flight, Delta will check if passengers have the required travel visas."

    Now, I've read conflicting reports today from people who have had their visas checked in advance of flying (not just by Delta, but for air travel in general) and those who have not had them checked. It's certainly true that for lots and lots of destinations no visa is necessary, so maybe the people who haven't had them checked just haven't flown to the right (wrong?) places. It's also quite possible that airlines are very hit-or-miss about checking for visas before allowing boarding. It appears to be unquestioned that if an airline lands with someone who isn't allowed in the country, the airline is on the hook for a fine and return passage for the non-visa'd non-traveler non-grata. That's true with flights inbound to the US, too, by the way. The airline doesn't have to check, but if they don't they're taking a risk.

    e) Delta's official response on their official blog is officially not as helpful as I'm officially sure they officially hoped it to be.

    Technically, it's all quite true and quite reasonable, especially if you're reading it with an eye towards granting them the reasonable benefit of the doubt. "Delta does not discriminate nor do we condone discrimination against anyone"; "passengers are responsible for obtaining the necessary travel documents, such as visas"; "we’re responsible for making sure that you have the proper documentation before you board".

    If you give them credit and read between the lines a little bit, you can see that what they're actually trying to say here is:

    NO, You stupid cunts, we aren't lining our passengers up and demanding that they show proof that they aren't the HATED JOOOS!! What, you think we're going to have our ticketing and gate agents grilling passengers as they board about their views of the Holy Prophet Peace Be Upon Him or turning away anyone with a yarmulke or a Catskills accent? THINK, DIMWIT!

    … but that probably wouldn't have made it past their Corporate Counsel. Although it should have. Oh well. Maybe next time.

    At the very least, they should probably follow up with "… and by proper documents, we mean visas. Which you have to get from the Saudi embassy. And which we have absolutely no control over. When we say proper documents, we certainly aren't talking about some kind of certification-of-non-Jewishness. That would be silly. We of course mean visas. Which the Saudis issue. Not us. If you can get one from them, we'll let you on board, with a smile. If you can't, well, we won't, because we really don't want to keep you stuck on a plane for ten hours, and then five hours on the ground, and then another ten hours back home, just because you felt like maybe just maybe it would be okay with the Saudis if you, you know, just showed up and asked real nice to come in."

  2. Ken  •  Jun 23, 2011 @7:41 pm

    Eddie:

    Thanks for your comment. A few thoughts in response:

    1. If Delta is not inquiring on enforcing, on behalf of Saudia, any restrictions on religious items or Israeli entry, that answers some of my questions. I'd note that I don't think your answers (which I accept for the sake of argument) are self-evident from the structure of airlines and customs; I've had airlines ask customs-type questions on the way to numerous countries.

    2. I don't mean to suggest that I see WND as a reliable source. However, I think the whole issue is worth discussing wherever it starts, and I've seen multiple sources — including one at Volokh that you referred to before — suggesting that Saudi does exclude some Jews on some occasions. Saudia's role in that — and what role Delta might be called on to assume — is a legitimate follow-up question.

    3. Speaking politically, PR-wise, and morally, I don't think that it necessarily takes Delta off the hook if they simply say "we only require the visas that the country issues." As others have asked — if 80s-era South Africa refused to issue vias to blacks, would Delta partner with South African Airlines, and check visas? Does partnering with a government-run carrier that is one instrument of a bigoted policy morally neutral? Do we have any U.S. carriers that check visas on behalf of countries that have race- or religion- or nationality-based visa restrictions? (Critics might argue that we have some such restrictions . . . .) It's a philosophical point worth debating. If China required visas and refused to issue them to anyone who had traveled to Taiwan, what would American carriers do?

    4. Delta isn't handling this well. Even your profane response would be better.

  3. eddie  •  Jun 23, 2011 @8:54 pm

    Thanks for complimenting my profanity!

    KSA does exclude Jews. Sometimes. Sometimes not.

    An Israeli stamp in your passport will keep you out, except when it doesn't. They don't like tourists, except sometimes they do, and they've been trying to like them more lately, but not always. If you work there, you can come and go pretty easily, unless there's some kind of problem, which could be anything from the Immigration guy is having a bad day to the Immigration guy's boss is looking for a bigger bribe to the paperwork got delayed in your company's HR department because the guy who was supposed to approve it decided not to show up for a couple of weeks.

    No joke. All that happens.

    Delta, or any of the other US-based airlines that do code-sharing with the airlines that actually do fly directly into the Kingdom, would be insane if they tried to second-guess whether or not someone might be allowed into the country based on anything more complex than "do they have a visa"? The Delta foreign travel page I linked to above has pointers to a database (maintained by the IATA, not Delta) that attempts to describe the requirements for entry to various countries. Check out the requirements for Saudi Arabia, and you'll see things like "may be refused entry for wearing too thin or too tight clothing".

    On the one hand, it's good that there's someone out there advising travelers of what they probably have to do in order to probably not get turned away at the Immigration counter. On the other hand, the airlines would be making a huge mistake if they tried to do anything resembling "enforcement" of those rules themselves. And that definitely includes evaluating their travel history, clothing, religiosity, or luggage contents.

    Of course, nothing says that corporations have to be sane.

    I agree that now that the question has come up, it would be great to hear the answer. I think it took an awful lot of willful misconstrual and deliberate controversy-ginning-up on the part of WND for the question to have even come up in the first place. And I do think the answer is as simple as I've made it out to be, your experiences with airlines notwithstanding. But I could be wrong. Maybe Delta will make it painfully, obviously, unavoidably clear in their next press release.

    And as for the morality of it all, even if Delta (and every other airline in the world – they all have some way of getting you into the Kingdom even if they don't fly there themselves) does keep an arms-length relationship with regard to visas and entry criteria… I have to ask: what's special about an air carrier doing business with an ugly regime that's different from any other type of business doing business with said regime? If KSA were flogging and imprisoning homosexuals (oh, wait, that's right, they are) would we be outraged at Delta for capturing some of the revenue from people wanting to travel there but unmiffed at Cisco for selling networking equipment to the government? Why is the outrage over immigration policies that exclude, say, unmarried women – or, hypothetically, blacks, or redheads, or people who look "Jewish" – different from the other crimes against decency that the country commits such that we care about airlines but not agriculture?

    In other words, if a country is so despicable that we don't want to let our companies fly people there on airplanes… why would we want to let our companies do anything with them at all?

  4. Jesse  •  Jun 24, 2011 @8:47 am

    I'd say we want to "let" our companies do business with whomever they want for any or no reason they want because that is what free countries do (then again the USA isn't exactly all that free anymore.)

    Delta should be allowed to do business in the manner of their choosing, though their public relations might suffer for it depending on their actions. If I were them, I'd simply tell jewish travellers "we'll take you on the plane and get you on the tarmac, but anything beyond that is out of our hands and you might run into problems." Caveat Emptor.

    Some people might complain about the restricted ability of arabs/palestinians to travel within Israel.

  5. Ken  •  Jun 24, 2011 @9:10 am

    There's a difference between "letting" companies do business in the government sense and "letting" them do business in the consumer sense. A consumer might agree that the government should not prohibit Delta from this partnership, but might decide not to fly Delta any more.

  6. Ken  •  Jun 24, 2011 @9:13 am

    Why is the outrage over immigration policies that exclude, say, unmarried women – or, hypothetically, blacks, or redheads, or people who look “Jewish” – different from the other crimes against decency that the country commits such that we care about airlines but not agriculture?

    Eddie, some people might find a difference in the extent to which a company participates in a foreign country's wrongdoing. That's what my questions to Delta go to. It's also why someone might choose to buy one running shoe over another, if Shoe A is manufactured under horrific conditions in totalitarian country X, while shoe B is manufactured under comparatively humane conditions in totalitarian country X. Of course, as you suggest, those distinctions are subject to criticism.

  7. ParatrooperJJ  •  Jun 24, 2011 @9:25 am

    One of the reasons Delta may do this is because if they transport someone to a foreign country and they are denied entry, Delta is then responsible for returning them to the country of departure.

  8. John Burgess  •  Jun 24, 2011 @5:02 pm

    I had two US Foreign Service assignments in Saudi Arabia, 1981-83 and 2001-03 and continue to write about the country at Crossroads Arabia. I try to travel there every year or so since retiring from the Foreign Service.

    Saudi attitudes toward Israel and Jews are 'evolving'. The government does not recognize Israel and so does not accept Israeli documentation, including passports and Israeli exit/entry stamps.

    Toward Jews, the official policy has been shifting to wider acceptance, though it was never quite as harsh as many suppose. During both tours, I worked with American Jews in our Embassy and Consulates. (One, interestingly, married to a Muslim woman, a big no-no in most Islamic states. Even diplomats have to note their religions on their visa forms, so the couple's status was known.) I also knew Jews of various nationalities working there on contract with both private Saudi and international firms including the Saudi government itself.

    More recently, in 2009, the Saudi government awarded its highest honor–the King Faisal Award–to Dr. Ronald Levy of Stanford, for his work in medical research. Levy is Jewish. His wife and kids are Jewish and Israeli citizens. Nevertheless, the Saudis granted his entire family visas to attend the award ceremony. Clearly, official policy is not to exclude Jews–or, more cynically, not to be seen excluding Jews. Here's the contemporary article from Haaretz on the award.

    There is no religious freedom in the KSA, as the Freedom House Annual Report on Religious Freedom makes clear. Even a Muslim, if not the right kind of Muslim, there can be hassles. As Eddie has suggested above, lower-ranked Saudi are not above trying to implement laws as they think it should be rather than what it actually is. (Think TSA here if you need an example of how this happens.)

    Visa applications ask the religion of the applicant. There are only two 'correct' answers to the question: Muslim or Non-Muslim. The intent is to identify who is permitted within the sacred precincts of Mecca and Medina, both of which are restricted to Muslims (of any flavor).

    Holy books and religious paraphernalia are not banned if brought in for personal use. Large quantities of religious texts in Arabic are assumed to be intended for proselytizing, which is forbidden by Saudi law. The wearing of religious garb or identity jewelry/clothing are also forbidden, but then, so to is Islamic-oriented jewelry. The Saudis are down on jewelry for men and don't approve of public displays even for women. (In private, nearly anything goes.)

    As a country, I find Saudi Arabia fascinating. It's a mess of contradictions. It aspires toward impossibilities like 'modernization without change.' It's trying to come to terms with a world that has absolutely changed around it, but also has to deal with the large number of politically powerful, hidebound conservatives (both cultural and religious) who see change as sinful in and of itself. It's a hyper-modern country in some regards, but it still has third-world poverty outside the cities. Women can't drive, except when and where they do. The country discriminates strongly against women, but is gradually changing. Why earlier this month, the government actually decreed that only women would henceforth be permitted to sell lingerie to other women!

    How the KSA manages the transitions it needs to make–if it does–is the most exciting thing going on in foreign affairs (to me) outside of shooting wars.

  9. Ken  •  Jun 24, 2011 @5:07 pm

    Thanks for the insights, John.

  10. eddie  •  Jun 26, 2011 @2:48 pm

    This is officially "old news" by now (like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of the news cycle) – but to maybe bring some closure, here's a couple of useful updates:

    An analysis tracking where the misinformation started and how it spread, plus some actual facts: http://www.poynter.org/latest-news/making-sense-of-news/137004/how-misinformation-spread-about-delta-jews-and-saudi-arabia-flights/

    Dismemberment of the HuffPo story (one of the key contributors to spreading the disinformation), with lots of detailed facts: http://boardingarea.com/blogs/flyingwithfish/2011/06/23/delta-no-jews-policy-could-this-story-be-more-wrong/

    Response from Delta on their blog, updated (when? dunno) to add several answers to the kinds of questions you've asked above: http://blog.delta.com/2011/06/23/view-from-30000-feet-delta-on-diversity/

  11. GT  •  Jun 26, 2011 @2:48 pm

    Srsly – how is it that in the early 21st century we are still talking about snark between adherents of two different strands of idiotic, primitive, racist tribal lunacy – one where an incestuous Iron Age goatherd heard voices telling him to pieces off his (and his heirs) dick in exchange for world domination, and another where a carpet seller heard voices updating the situation and saying some more insane babble. In between, some guy got stapled to a tree. It's fucking madness.

    I can't remember who said it, but the aphorism is apt: if you think you talk to God, we call that 'praying'. If you think God talks to you, we call that 'schizophrenia'.

    My addendum to that is: if you structure your life based on some quasi-historical figure who claimed to hear voices, we call that 'retarded'.

    Oh for the day when ANY religious display results in the shunning of the displayer: private citizens have the right to believe whatever they like, but if they believe absolute hogwash they should be called out on it… it's even more stupid that membership of political parties (but these days at least religion has been defanged in most of the 'civilised' West – by which I mean the West excluding America and 'Israel')