WASHINGTON – A US senator has called for an investigation into whether Delta Air Lines is discriminating against Jewish passengers under an agreement it recently entered into with Saudi Arabian Airlines.
Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk wrote to J. Randolph Babbit, an administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration, on Friday and urged him to “determine whether Delta Air Lines violated US law or regulation and to ensure no US citizen is denied their right to fly solely on the basis of their religion.”
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Kirk was referring to news reports alleging that as a result of the Atlanta-based Delta expanding its SkyTeam network of member airlines to include Saudi Arabian Airlines, on flights bound for Saudi Arabia Delta itself would comply with Saudi requirements regarding who can arrive in the country, which could lead to the exclusion of Jews. The SkyTeam expansion was announced in January and is set to begin in 2012.
The allegation seems to rest on the need for US passengers to possess a Saudi visa to board a flight destined to the Gulf state, and Saudi Arabia is widely believed to not grant visas to most Jews, as well as to people of any faith who have Israeli stamps in their passports.
It is common practice for airlines in the same alliance to codeshare on flights and frequent flier miles between companies.
Critics of the move by Delta charge this makes the American airline even more complicit in the Saudi carrier’s practices.
But Trebor Banstetter, a Delta spokesman, e-mailed The Jerusalem Post a
statement saying that in the case of Saudi Arabian Airlines, “Delta does
not operate service to Saudi Arabia and does not codeshare with any
airline that serves that country. Delta does not intend to codeshare or
share reciprocal benefits, such as frequent flier benefits.”
He continued, “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.”
Banstetter did not respond to requests seeking further clarification,
but he did stress in his statement as well as in a post to the Delta
blog 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.”
The Delta-Saudi Airlines agreement has sparked outrage not only on
Capitol Hill but among many Jews and non-Jews who resent Delta’s
relationship with the stateowned airline, given the intolerance inherent
in the country’s rules for visitors, both Jewish and Christian.
One respondent to Banstetter’s blog post was not satisfied with his explanations.
“I am not a Jew, and I don’t often carry a Bible with me when I travel,
but it is pretty offensive to me still that you skirted around the issue
this way,” the customer wrote.
“Despite the fact that your airline does not ‘discriminate’ in the
truest sense of the word, partnering with an airline that so overtly
does makes you just as guilty of it.”
The Saudi embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment
over its visa policy and whether Jews and visitors with Israeli
passport stamps are barred from entering the country. Saudi Arabian
Airlines officials could not be reached for clarification over who they
allow to board their flights.
Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, however, told
the Post he has visited Saudi Arabia on numerous occasions despite
specifying that he is Jewish on visa forms and having Israeli stamps in
his passport. He spoke to the Post by phone while on a visit to
He said that despite his experiences, “it’s not really clear” what the
Saudi policies are, and “most people believe with an Israeli stamp in
your passport you can’t get it.”
He said the situation had improved over past years, where there was a
more blanket policy against visitors with Israeli stamps, but that Saudi
Arabia should be clearer about its policy and that work remained to be
“The reaction is based on the history and common practice,” he said,
adding that Delta needs to examine these practices as well if it will be
working with the airline.
“We understand that Delta, as any airline, is required to comply with
the visa requirements of the destination country,” Foxman wrote in a
letter to Delta CEO Richard 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 nondiscrimination policy.”
He also said, “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.”
The ADL plans to reach out to other major US airlines with similar arrangements with Saudi carriers in the coming days.
Critics of Delta’s decision argued that while the visa policy is not one
determined by the airline, the choice to enter into an agreement with a
Saudi company was entirely Delta’s.
“The issue here is one of principle. Delta isn’t being forced to include
Saudi Arabian Airlines into its SkyTeam Alliance,” Detroitbased Rabbi
Jason Miller wrote on his blog. “In fact, Delta could stand on principle
and refuse to include Saudi Arabian Airlines based on its
A spokesman at the Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA,
said the question of discrimination is not in the hands of the airline
but Saudi regulators, and therefore inquiries such as Kirk’s should be
directed to the State Department.
“This does not seem to be an issue with what the airline is doing, but with the Saudi government,” the spokesman told the Post.
Delta strongly denied that it was discriminating against Jews, saying it
was required to follow “all applicable laws governing entry into every
country we serve.”
“Delta does not discriminate nor do we condone discrimination against
any of our customers in regards to age, race, nationality, religion or
gender,” Delta spokesman Trebor Barnstetter wrote in an email to Fox
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