Delta Airlines, Saudi Arabia, and "No Jews Allowed"

Late this afternoon, the web lit up with articles about a burgeoning corporate crisis affecting Delta Airlines. From all across the ideological spectrum came stories about Delta’s alleged “No Jews Allowed” policy for flights going to Saudi Arabia.

The liberal Huffington Post, centrist USA Today, and conservative WorldNetDaily all covered the story. According to WorldNetDaily’s version:

“Delta Air Lines’ plan to add Saudi Arabian Airlines to its SkyTeam Alliance of partnering companies would require the American carrier to ban Jews and holders of Israeli passports from boarding flights from New York or Washington bound for Jeddah.”


Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Photo Credit: Ali Mansuri

Other stories cast doubt on whether or not all Jews would be denied entry to Saudi Arabia, saying only those people with an Israeli entry or exit stamp in their passport would be banned from the Kingdom. Yet other credible websites suggest only some visa applicants have been denied entry to Saudi Arabia based on previous travel to Israel.

Despite an honest attempt to nail down the details, I couldn’t. Several of the news stories contradict one another – and that’s a problem for Delta, since a vacuum of information means people will believe whatever they want to about its policy. A boilerplate and totally unhelpful statement released by the airline early this evening only added to the confusion:

“…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.”


Delta’s right about that. The company doesn’t have any say in the policies set by the Saudi government. But it has a huge say in the partners with whom it chooses to do business – and the company’s  statement doesn’t begin to address whether it is profiting from another nation’s discriminatory policies.

Delta adds that it, “…does not discriminate nor do we condone discrimination against anyone in regards to age, race, nationality, religion, or gender.” But it appears to many as if Delta has made a decision to prioritize commerce over its lofty rhetoric.

This is surely going to be a public relations nightmare for Delta, and its initial statement will not suffice. Delta will have to say more, and quickly.

If these stories are wrong, Delta will have to push back on the charges forcefully. If the reporting is correct, Delta can only do one thing to do to avert a longer-lasting communications nightmare: Pull out of its agreement with Saudi Arabian Airlines immediately and apologize for its lack in judgment.

There’s a third option, which would be the most dangerous for Delta: that the stories are correct, that other airlines are also flying to places that restrict certain visitors, and that doing so is an industry norm. That’s the worst case scenario for Delta, because it means they’d be unlikely to change their policies but would receive a disproportionate share of the blame for a widespread industry practice.

If that’s the case, I hope Delta’s P.R. team plans on canceling its evening and weekend plans for a while.

UPDATE: Friday, June 24, 2011, 9:45am: A terrific social media blogger specializing in the airlines named Steven Frischling adds more information to this story on his Flying With Fish blog:

“Delta Air Lines is a founding member of SkyTeam,” which is “comprised of 14 airlines, 12 airlines, from four continents…Delta Air Lines supported Saudia’s membership.”
“Saudi Arabia does issue visas to Jews. While the country previously rejected many visa applications based on a person being Jewish, this is no longer the case. Travelers who have Israeli stamps in their passport should seek a duplicate passport, and submit the duplicate passport, with no Israeli stamps, for entry into Saudi Arabia, regardless of their religion.”
“As for Israeli passports, as a general rule (with very limited exceptions), a visa granting entry into, or transiting through, Saudi Arabia will not be allowed. In fact, Israeli passports are not accepted by Algeria, Bangladesh, Brunei, Djibouti, Iran, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia (with limited exceptions), Pakistan, Qatar (with limited exceptions), Somalia, Sudan, Syria, The United Arab Emirates (with limited exceptions) or Yemen.”

A quick look at Mr. Frischling’s blog suggests he knows his stuff. Assuming he’s right, why didn’t Delta say any of that in their statement? Why did their statement leave gaping omissions about the rights of Jews to travel to Saudi Arabia with an obtuse statement that allowed readers to infer the exact opposite?
If Frischling is right, Delta will need to correct the record with a much more specific second statement quickly, before this story continues to spread throughout the web and do lasting damage to their brand.
UPDATE: Friday, June 24, 2011, 2:00pm: Delta has finally posted a more detailed statement on its blog. I’m posting it below in its entirety:

Today we’re still getting a lot questions from you about our association with SkyTeam and Saudi Airlines. We realize a lot of these remain unanswered, so we’ve compiled a list of the top questions we’re seeing in hopes of shedding further light on this issue.
Q: Will Saudi Air’s membership into SkyTeam affect Delta customers?
A: Simply put, no. We don’t intend to codeshare or share any reciprocal benefits (such as frequent flier benefits) with Saudi Air.
Q: Will any customers of Delta ever be discriminated against on their flight?
A: Absolutely not. As a global airline, we don’t discriminate against any of our customers in regards to age, race, nationality, religion, or gender.
Q: What’s your association with SkyTeam?
A: We’re a member of the 14-member global airline alliance based in Amsterdam
Q: Do you operate any service to Saudi Arabia?
A: No, we don’t codeshare with any airline that serves that country
Q: Do you have any association with Saudi Air?
A: Yes, we have a standard industry agreement with them, which allows passengers to book tickets on multiple carriers. We have similar agreements with Saudi Air that American Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines have as well.

I’m glad Delta finally released this statement. But why didn’t they do so last night? By waiting, they allowed these rumors to spread, and many people who heard them will never hear Delta’s more complete explanation. They could have mitigated this damage by making the second statement first.
Companies are too often forced to release a more complete second statement after inflaming the public with an incomplete (or tone-deaf) first statement. Delta should know better by now.