The Spectacle Blog

Delta and Saudi Discrimination

By on 6.23.11 | 11:05PM

Religion News Service (syndicated to the Huffington Post) reports:

JERUSALEM (RNS) Jews and Israelis, or passengers carrying any non-Islamic article of faith, will not be able to fly code-share flights from the U.S. to Saudi Arabia under Delta Air Line's new partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines that is set to begin in 2012.

Although Delta announced in January that the Saudi airline would join its SkyTeam network next year, the implications of the deal only came to light recently, according to people who have scrutinized the details.

Saudi Arabia, which is governed by strict Islamic law, requires citizens of almost every country to obtain a visa. People who wish to enter the country must have a sponsor; women, who must be dressed according to Saudi standards of modesty, must be met at the Saudi airport by a man who will act as a chaperone.

Saudi Arabia bans anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport from entering the country, even in transit. Many Jews believe the kingdom has also withheld visas from travelers with Jewish-sounding names.

Religious items such as Bibles that are not related to Islam may be confiscated at the airport.

This report (which HuffPo has headlined "U.S. Jews Not Able To Fly On Delta Flights To Saudi Arabia") may be overstating things a bit -- a USA Today blogger cites a rabbi who says "he knows many professionals who are very open about their Jewish religious identity who fly to Saudi Arabia all the time for business" -- but the broad outlines are basically correct: Saudi Arabia's visa requirements are extremely illiberal, and those who don't meet those requirements are not allowed to board an SAA flight to Saudi Arabia. Under the code-sharing deal, SAA will be operating flights under the Delta brand as it enforces those illiberal requirements.

A blogger for Delta.com addresses the controversy like this:

First and foremost, I think one of the most important things to mention here is that Delta does not discriminate nor do we condone discrimination against anyone in regards to age, race, nationality, religion, or gender.

That said, some have raised questions about whether Saudi Arabian Airlines' membership in SkyTeam means Delta is adopting any type of policies that could present barriers to travel for some passengers, including Jewish customers. For this particular concern, it's important to realize that visa requirements to enter any country are dictated by that nation's government, not the airlines, and they apply to anyone entering the country regardless of whether it's by plane, bus or train.

We, like all international airlines, are required to comply with all applicable laws governing entry into every country we serve. You as passengers are responsible for obtaining the necessary travel documents, such as visas and certification of required vaccinations, and we're responsible for making sure that you have the proper documentation before you board.

In short: It's not our fault, it's the Saudi government's fault and we have to follow the law.

But there's a gaping hole in this defense: Saudia Arabia Airlines is owned by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. If Delta doesn't condone the discrimination that the Saudi government practices, it shouldn't be partnering with that government. And as long as it does partner with that government, I think that I'll be traveling with Delta's competitors whenever it's at all convenient.

UPDATE 6/24: Delta has announced that, unlike other SkyTeam member airlines, Saudi Arabia Airlines will be excluded from sharing frequent flier benefits.

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