Senator Kirk Calls for an Investigation of Delta Airlines Over Possible Religious Discrimination
By Ellen Cannon
On June 24 Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) requested the Federal Aviation Administration to investigate charges in a USA Today report which claimed that Delta Airlines and Saudi Arabia had an agreement barring American Jews from flying into Saudi Arabia. This allegation was based on the Internet story which caught on following an article about Saudi Arabian airlines joining Delta SkyTeam’s global airline alliance. The SkyTeam expansion was announced in January and is set to begin in 2012.The allegations further developed when Religion News Service noted that “Saudi Arabic 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. U.S. Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) sent a letter to the Federal Aviation Administrator(FAA) requesting an immediate investigation to determine whether Delta violated American law.
In his letter to Administrator Randy Babbittt of the FAA , Kirk wrote, “ I am deeply concerned by the June 23, 2011, report in USA Today, entitled “U.S. Jews not able to fly on Delta flights to Saudi Arabia.” “If true, this policy appears to violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause while undermining the purpose of the Federal Aviation Administration- to promote the safety and expansion of U.S. civil aviation.” Senator Kirk went on to state, “I request your investigation into this matter to determine whether Delta Airlines violated U.S. law or regulation and to ensure that no U.S. citizen is denied their right to fly solely on the basis of their religion…”Since a core mission of the FAA is to promote civil aviation, I would expect the FAA to use its full statutory and regulatory power to ensure that America’s civil airways are not restricted for persons regardless of faith.”(Keith Lang, “ Sen. Kirk wants FAA to investigate alleged religious discrimination by Delta,” The Hill, June 24, 2011)
The charge seems to rest on the need for U.S. 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 stamps in their passport. According to The Jerusalem Post, It is common practice for airlines in the same alliance to code-share 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 practices.”(Hilary L. Krieger, 6/25/11)
The email sent to the Jerusalem Post by Mr. Trebor Banstetter stated, “That in the case of Saudi Arabia, 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 miles.” According to Banstetter, Delta has a standard industry interline agreement which allows passengers to book tickets on multiple carriers, which he states, is similar to the standard agreements American Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines have with the Saudi Arabian Airline.
Delta denied the allegation. Writing on the Delta blog, spokesperson Trevor Bansetter stated, “Delta does not discriminate or condone discrimination against anyone.” Furthermore he stated, “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.” Bannsetter further noted that Delta Airlines does not discriminate against anyone in regards to race, religion, age, nationality, or gender. Bansetter further noted that Delta Airlines, like other international airlines, are required to comply with all applicable laws governing entry into every country we serve.
Not everyone shares the view of Mr. Bannsetter. Mr. Jeffrey Lovitky a lawyer with The American Law Center and Justice, told World One Daily (WND) “ that he became aware of Delta’s plan while making travel arrangements. He wrote to Delta CEO, Richard Anderson about the matter. CEO Anderson did not respond but he did get a letter from Delta’s Kathy M. Johnston.
In her letter of April 28, 2011 to Mr. Jeffrey Lovitsky, Kathy M. Johnston, coordinator of the airlines “Customer Care” division wrote, “Delta must comply with all applicable laws in every country it serves and by the same token passengers are responsible to obtain the necessary travel documents required for entry into another country prior to the day of travel. If the passenger travels without the correct documents, the passenger may be denied access into that country and our airline may be fined.” She continued, While we fully understand and sympathize with your concerns, Delta has no control over the actions of the government of the United States or any foreign country. If the government of Saudi Arabia engages in discriminatory practices, in the issuance of travel documents to U.S. citizens, this is a matter which must be addressed with a local embassy or the U.S. State Department.”(www.wnd.com/6,22, 2011.
According to Mr. Lovitky, “Whatever discrimination the Saudis choose to enforce in their nation, it becomes a problem when Delta applies it to American citizens on American soil. Delta airlines, he argues, acted in a purely voluntary manner in agreeing to this alliance with Saudi Airlines. Accordingly, Delta has made itself responsible for ensuring that passengers on any flight jointly operated with Saudi Airlines will not be subject to discrimination on the basis of religion, gender, or any other inappropriate grounds. “These views were expressed by Mr. Lovitky in a letter to the Delta Board. He received no response to his letter or concerns.
According to Mr. Lovitsky this issue is important on many levels. Saudi law applies to all international carriers that are members of the SkyTeam. This includes, Aeroflat, AeroMexico, AirEuropa, AirFrance, Alitaia, China Southern, CSA Czech Airlines, Kenya Airways, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Korean Air, TAROM, and Vietnam Airlines. In addition to this scope of carriers, he suggests that restrictions when flying to Saudi Arabia could “include clothing requirements for women and banning passengers from carrying and reading religious literature of their choice. This might include such things as restricting Christians and Jews from reading their sacred texts, such as the Old and the New Testament, as well utilizing any objects that reflect their religion, such as a crosses and necklaces and objects used in non Moslem daily prayers.
Mr. Lovkitsky expressed displeasure that “Delta’s response to his follow-up letter was to say, We respectfully consider this matter closed and we will not be responding to this matter again.”
The Delta-Saudi agreement which has sparked outrage in Washington, D.C., has been widely commented on in the international press, and has caused an uproar among many Jews and non-Jews.
The Saudi embassy in Washington refused to comment over its visa policy and whether Jews and visitors with Israeli passport stamps are barred from entering the country. Saudi Arabian Airlines, according to The Jerusalem Post, could not be reached for clarification over who they allow to board their flights.
Anti-Defamation League National Director (ADL) Abraham Foxman stated that ‘’it is not clear” what the Saudi policy is. He does “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 regulation of Saudi Arabia.(Jerusalem Post,June 25, 2011)
Senator Kirk believes an investigation into the airlines practices is essential and reviewing the airline alliance agreement, “will serve to lay down a marker as our country’s civil aviation system expands.” (Kerry Lester, www.dailyherlad.com/article/June 24, 2011)