part one: don’t blame delta… because the airline business is complicated.

For the past sev­eral days, there’s been a lot of chat­ter on the inter­webs about a sug­ges­tion (which seems to have really taken off with this HuffPost arti­cle by Rabbi Jason Miller) that peo­ple boy­cott put pres­sure on Delta because “Delta will add Saudi Arabian Airlines to its SkyTeam Alliance of part­ner­ing com­pa­nies and would require Delta to ban Jews and hold­ers of Israeli pass­ports from board­ing flights to Saudi Arabia.” My col­leagues on UPGRD​.com, Matthew and Hunter, have offered thought­ful and thor­ough responses, as have pod­cast con­trib­u­tors Ben and Gary. Normally, I’d stay out of this to avoid the redun­dancy. But since I’m in the unique posi­tion of being an occa­sional UPGRD con­trib­u­tor and also some­one who works pro­fes­sion­ally in the Jewish com­mu­nity, I felt like I should jump in. Below is the first of two posts on the topic, both of which are cross-posted on my UPGRD​.com blog and on my per­sonal blog.

[Update: Rabbi Miller tells me via twit­ter that he never actu­ally called for a boy­cott. I stand cor­rected, and so does this blog post.]

Lets start with the facts: It’s pos­si­ble that Saudi Arabia doesn’t dis­al­low Jews from enter­ing their coun­try. They may dis­al­low entry to some­one with an Israeli stamp in their pass­port. (This would make them one of a siz­able list of coun­tries with such a pol­icy.) And in any given instance — some report these “unof­fi­cial” poli­cies are incon­sis­tently applied — Saudi offi­cials may choose to deny a visa to a Jew sim­ply by virtue of the fact that they’re Jewish.

(Such a pol­icy was once listed on some offi­cial Saudi web­site. It is not listed today, and the Saudi gov­ern­ment denies that it dis­al­lows entry solely on the basis of reli­gion.)

Rabbi Miller is upset because his air­line of choice — by part­ner­ing with Saudi Airlines — will now enforce a rule that doesn’t allow peo­ple who don’t hold Saudi entry visas to board flights to Saudi Arabia (or com­mence itin­er­aries that end up there… like a Delta flight from Atlanta to New York con­nect­ing to a Saudi Air flight to Riyadh). In his mind, Delta is now not allow­ing Jews on their planes, and that’s con­trary to every­thing we believe as Americans.

A num­ber of peo­ple have pointed out that Miller’s entire point is based on an over­sim­pli­fied under­stand­ing of a com­plex and sophis­ti­cated sys­tem. Basically, because air­li­nes can end up hold­ing the bill when their cus­tomers walk off their flight but can’t enter a coun­try, they all require some sort of proof that pas­sen­gers can actu­ally get past bor­der patrol at their des­ti­na­tion.

(So before British Airways would con­firm my recent ticket from PHX to PRG via LHR, I had to provide my pass­port info. Had I shown up at PRG with­out a pass­port, BA would have had to fly my butt back home. They didn’t want that to hap­pen, so they ver­i­fied that I had a valid pass­port before fly­ing. With a coun­try that has stricter entry require­ments, air­li­nes check for more than just the pass­port.)

In other words, an air­line that flies to Riyadh isn’t enforc­ing Saudi Arabia’s laws so much as mak­ing sure their pas­sen­gers will be in com­pli­ance with Saudi Arabia’s laws so that the air­line isn’t screwed when Saudi Arabia enforces Saudi Arabia’s laws.

To Miller, all that’s just seman­tics. At the end of the day, Delta allowed Saudi Airlines into the SkyTeam alliance, and by allow­ing their cus­tomers to earn or redeem miles on Saudi flights, Delta is now com­plicit in enforc­ing the anti-Semitic poli­cies of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and should there­fore be boy­cotted by cause con­ster­na­tion among Jews and haters of anti-Semitism.

(Of course Delta them­selves have been very clear that cus­tomers will not be able to redeem miles for flights on Saudi Air. First, for any­one who’s ever tried to redeem Delta “miles” for any­thing, that’s not news. Second, why let the fact that this entire “story” is really silly inter­net rumor­mon­ger­ing get in the way of silly inter­net hys­te­ria?)

To be clear, Delta is not alone in part­ner­ing with Saudi Airlines. The US gov­ern­ment allows them to fly to this coun­try, and even allows them cer­tain special-ish priv­i­leges. Furthermore, other air­li­nes that are mem­bers of major alliances — includ­ing British Air, Iberia, Cathay Pacific, Lufthansa, Air France, Turkish Airlines, and Royal Jordanian — fly to Saudi Arabia and to other coun­tries with sim­i­lar poli­cies. (Lucky and Gary make this point well, and on it alone they dis­miss Jason Miller. Bonus points to Matthew for mak­ing the fol­low­ing points…)

Maybe this is dif­fer­ent, since in this case Saudi Arabian Airlines is owned by the Saudi gov­ern­ment. Letting them into a major alliance would mark the first time a flag­ship car­rier of one of the “no Israel stamp” coun­tries is actu­ally a full-fledged mem­ber of one of the big three. In other words, it’s one thing if British Airways is in your alliance and they fly to a coun­try with anti-Israel laws and there­fore fol­low said laws inso­far as they per­tain to fly­ing into said coun­try. It’s another thing if the air­line in your alliance is itself owned by the anti-Israel gov­ern­ment in ques­tion.

(And here’s where Matthew, who is not a Jew but has been to Israel, and Iran for that mat­ter gets huge points…) Middle-East pol­i­tics are very, very com­pli­cated. For exam­ple, judg­ing by sit­u­a­tions like this one, Saudi Arabia seems pretty anti-Israel. But on the other hand, they allow US troops in their coun­try, and have been an ally to this coun­try at some impor­tant times.The point here isn’t to list rea­sons the Saudis are either good guys or bad guys. (For the record: In my mind, their human rights record makes it the lat­ter.) The point is that this is com­pli­cated, and its naïve to sim­ply sug­gest a boy­cott of a com­pany who accepts Saudi Airlines into a busi­ness alliance.

So that’s a really long way of get­ting to my point…

I dis­agree with Rabbi Miller. And this is one of those cases where it’s not just that I dis­agree. It’s taken me four days to write this blog post. No mat­ter how many times I read over his arti­cle, or how many times I try to find some other way to see this issue, I find myself return­ing to the fact that this isn’t a sit­u­a­tion where I can acknowl­edge that this is an argu­ment l’shem shamayim, a dis­agree­ment where both sides have valid points of view and are argu­ing for the sake of the greater good. Rather, I can’t shake the fact that Rabbi Miller is sim­ply mis­in­formed, and that the peo­ple swept up in the hys­ter­i­cal inter­net back­lash against Delta air­li­nes are just as mis­in­formed.

The air­line busi­ness is way more com­pli­cated than Rabbi Miller seems to have thought. By his own admis­sion, he got up-in-arms about this because he’s based in Detroit, and Delta now has a hub in Detroit (thanks to the Northwest acqui­si­tion). But then he says this:

My argu­ment is that Delta Airlines (which oper­ates a hub 30 min­utes from my home) is “get­ting into bed” with an Airline that has a pol­icy of not allow­ing trav­el­ers to board with­out a visa from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

I can’t believe that Rabbi Miller would say such a thing if he actu­ally saw the big pic­ture. Because if the anti-Delta crown stood by their state­ment, they couldn’t fly a sin­gle North American legacy car­rier, since every sin­gle one of them is in bed “with an air­line that has a pol­icy of not allow­ing trav­el­ers to board with­out a visa from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

So they can’t fly American (since BA, Iberia, Cathay Pacific, Royal Jordanian, and Etihad all fly to Saudi Arabia), United or Continental or USAir (because Star Alliance includes Lufthansa, for starters), and they’ve already sworn off Delta (and maybe also Alaska, which has deep part­ner­ships with Delta and AA). In other words, every sin­gle major US air­line will let pas­sen­gers redeem miles to fly to Saudi Arabia, will reward cus­tomers for flights (on part­ners) to Saudi Arabia, and will enforce Saudi Arabian visa poli­cies in doing so. As far as I can tell, the only choice would be to fly domestic-only dis­count car­ri­ers that don’t part­ner with lega­cies.

(To put a fine point on it for those threat­en­ing not to fly Delta: If you stick with your pol­icy, you will be unable to fly any­where other than around North America on Southwest. Virtually every other air­line — even El Al — has some sort of part­ner­ship with some­one who goes to Saudi Arabia or code­shares there.)