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.)