Delta/Saudi partnership has unintended consequences

Published on October 14, 2011 by

The law of unintended consequences came into play when a partnership between Delta Airlines and Saudi Arabian Airlines resulted in a faux pas that has religious groups and civil libertarians up in arms.

Delta, based in Atlanta, announced at the beginning of this year that the Saudi airline was joining its SkyTeam network in 2012. Although that might have seemed like a lucrative business deal at the time, after experts scrutinized the details of what such a partnership would entail, discrimination against non-Muslims and women became evident.

For starters, Saudi Arabia, governed by strict Islamic law, bans anyone with an Israeli stamp in their passport from entering the country—even in transit. Furthermore, all religious items not related to Islam—including Bibles and crucifixes, are confiscated at the airport.

“I think Delta Airlines is acting in furtherance of its economic goal of expanding commerce by making alliances with Middle Eastern countries,” said Fairfield County-based radio talk show host Lisa Wexler, host of The Lisa Wexler Show.

There is some dispute as to whether Saudi Arabia discriminates against Jews in terms of entry. A Saudi official stated that carrying non-Islamic articles of faith was not a barrier to travel. Yet others have claimed that those with Jewish surnames are not granted visas.

“People are not permitted to carry non-Islamic articles of faith in Saudi Arabia. This would include Christian crosses, yarmulkes, New and Old Testaments,” said Wexler who co-wrote the book, “Secrets of a Jewish Mother,” with her mom Gloria Kamen and sister Jill Zarin (“Real Housewives of New York City”). “So what are you supposed to do—throw out your cross when you land?”

But wait, there’s more to the restrictions. Saudi Arabia also requires citizens of almost every country to obtain a visa, and people entering must have a sponsor. Women must be dressed according to Saudi standards of modesty and are obliged to be met at the airport by a man who will serve as her chaperone.

Although Delta itself doesn’t fly into Saudi Arabia (no U.S. airline does), critics have expressed concern that its SkyTeam marketing alliance with Saudi Arabian Airlines (which does fly between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia) would develop a code-share agreement.

“In signing this agreement, Delta agrees to abide by the visa requirements of the destination nation, Saudi Arabia,” said Wexler.

Who should be held responsible for what many are calling very bad judgment by the U.S. airline?

“The directors of Delta Airlines are condoning a policy of gross discrimination,” said Wexler, who is also an attorney. “I can see that this is a complicated issue because our relationship with Saudi Arabia is complicated. We look the other way and do not pressure them to change their societal norms because we need their oil, and we buy their oil. Contrast this with the international pressure brought to South Africa during the days of apartheid.”

However, according to Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter, Delta’s only agreement with Saudi Arabian Airlines is a standard industry interline agreement that allows travel agents to book passengers on multiple carriers and passengers’ checked bags to transfer between airlines on a multi-airline itinerary. Saudi Arabian Airlines has such agreements with other U.S. airlines, he said.

Additionally, Delta maintained that it does not intend to code share or share reciprocal benefits, such as frequent flier benefits, with Saudi Arabian Airlines.

“I think Delta is hoping this goes away, and that people won’t notice, or if they do notice, they won’t care,” said Wexler. “It is sad that an American company is going out of its way to help bring people to a country that is so discriminatory on its face. I think the remedy is in the marketplace: to let people know that Delta does not care about this issue. Then people can decide on their own if they want to place their dollars with Delta.”
Does the talk show host think that Americans will boycott Delta?

“If all of us were to buy things based upon the morality of the company that makes it, we’d probably have to sit home, knit ourselves our own clothes and grow all the food we eat,” she said. “I am not naive. Nonetheless, there are some decisions that deserve to be reconsidered.

When Google, Microsoft and Yahoo turned over the emails of Chinese dissidents who were then sent to jail, I was ashamed of them, as an American, and I sold my stock in those companies as a protest. I believe American companies have a duty to promulgate distinctly American values of free speech and religion whenever possible. I think Delta’s behavior here falls in that category. They are choosing to overlook patently discriminatory policies in order to pacify Saudi Arabia and make more money. In my view, they have made the wrong choice.”

The Lisa Wexler Show is the winner of the 2011 CT Press Award as Best Radio Show and the Gold Coast Best Radio Personality Award for 2011.