Delta Air Lines has come under immense pressure over the past few weeks as reports went viral that its partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines could prohibit American Jews from flying into the country. Both Delta and the Saudi government strongly rejected the charge.
Delta had announced in January that the Saudi airline is set to join its 14-member international airline alliance, SkyTeam network.
Saudi Arabia requires people entering the country to have a Saudi sponsor, which means an individual or a company must vouch for the individual’s conduct while in the country. A woman entrant must be dressed according to Saudi standards of modesty. She must be received by a man at the airport, either her sponsor or her husband, who will also be her chaperone.
As a country governed by Sharia law, Saudi Arabia follows strict Islamic laws about what can be brought into the country. Non-Muslim religious articles like Bibles and crosses can be confiscated at Saudi Arabian airports.
Besides, Israelis are not allowed into the country and there was still no clarity whether American Jews or others with Israeli visa on their passports would be allowed to board the flight to the middle-eastern Muslim Kingdom.
Critics have pointed out that an American airline entering into partnership with an airline that follows such discriminatory practices amounts to compromising American values. Many have demanded that Delta cut ties with the Saudi airline.
In a June 28 news release, American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a conservative public interest law firm, demanded that “Delta Air Lines end its partnership with Saudi Arabian Airlines over discriminatory policies targeting Jews, Christians and women and is asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Congress to investigate the prejudicial business deal.”
“For Delta to form a business relationship with a country that has a disturbing record of human rights violations is not only problematic, but warrants further scrutiny from the federal government and Congress,” said ACLJ chief counsel Jay Sekulow.
“You can’t let a U.S.-based company who has a U.S. license to benefit in an economic transaction from a group that is basically violating U.S. human rights law based on religion,” he told Fox News.
Earlier, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk wrote a letter to the head of FAA to investigate the allegations.
“I request your investigation into this matter to determine whether Delta Airlines violated U.S. law or regulation and to ensure no U.S. citizen is denied their right to fly solely on the basis of their religion,” wrote Kirk.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an international organization that fights anti-Semitism, wrote a letter to Delta urging the airline to reject discriminatory policy, CNN reported.
“We understand that Delta, as any airline, is required to comply with the visa requirements of the destination country,” wrote ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman in a letter to Delta's CEO. “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.”
Since then, Delta refuted allegations it was discriminating against Jews or Christians, explaining they are 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 said in a statement.
“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,” Delta spokesman Trebor Barstetter said. “Delta does not intend to code-share or share reciprocal benefits, such as frequent flier benefits, with Saudi Arabian Airlines, which we have confirmed with SkyTeam.”
The Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington issued a statement saying they welcomed the investigation and called allegations that Jews are not allowed into their country “complete nonsense,” Fox News reported.
“It will put to rest these rumors that we discriminate,” said embassy spokesman Nail Al-Jubeir. “The fact of the matter is American citizens are not being discriminated against based on their religion.
“Anybody who tells you they’ve been denied a visa because they’re Jewish, call me and we’ll look into it.”
The Saudi embassy tried to clarify some of the contentious points. About denying visas to Israelis, the Saudi embassy told CNN that it does not recognize the state of Israel and Israel, too, doesn't grant visas to Saudi Arabians.
Applicants for Saudi visas must specify Muslim or non-Muslim to determine who is granted access to the holy sites, the embassy said.
The critics, however, continued to press for more clarity from the American airline as well as the Saudi government that passengers would not be discriminated against on the basis of their gender, religion or other prohibited ground.
Jeffrey Lovitky, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, wrote letters to Delta’s board of directors seeking such an assurance.
“This is a matter of deep principle,” Lovitky told Fox News. “This involves whether an American airline should be permitted to form an alliance with a partner which is engaged in the most blatant forms of discrimination against individuals on the basis of their religion and their gender.”
“It sends a message to Jewish Americans, Christian Americans, female Americans – it sends a message that we put our profit interests before our commitment to basic human rights and basic American values,” he said. “And that, sir, is fundamentally wrong.”
“They are an American airline and they should be expected to adhere to what we consider to be decent and appropriate conduct,” Lovitky added.
Saudi Arabian Airlines is scheduled to officially join SkyTeam in 2012.