WASHINGTON – A US Senator has called for an investigation into whether Delta Airlines is discriminating against Jewish passengers under an agreement it recently entered into with Saudi Arabian Airlines.
Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk wrote Federal Aviation Administration Administrator J. Randolph Babbit Friday and urged 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.”
Kirk was referring to news reports which alleged that as a result of 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 charge seems to rest on the need for US passengers to possess a visa to Saudi Arabia in order 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 people of any faith who have Israeli entry stamps in their passports.
It is common practice for airlines in the same alliance to codeshare on flights and allow customers to transfer frequent flier miles between companies, which critics of the move by Delta charge makes the American airline even more complicit in the Saudi carrier’s practices.
But Trebor Banstetter, a Delta spokesman, emailed 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 state-owned airline given the perceived 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
that 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 Jerusalem Friday.
He said that despite his experiences “it’s not really clear” what the Saudi policies are and that “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 done.
“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 non-discrimination 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 the 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,” wrote Rabbi Jason Miller on his blog. “In fact, Delta could stand on principle and refuse to include Saudi Arabian Airlines based on its discriminatory policy.”
A spokesman at the Department of Transportation, which oversees the FAA, said that the question of discrimination is not in the hands of the airline but Saudi regulators and therefore inquiries such as Senator 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,” he told the Post