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, 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 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 naive 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.)