Delta criticized over visas to Saudi Arabia

AP News
Posted: Jun 24, 2011 5:49 PM
Delta criticized over visas to Saudi Arabia

Delta Air Lines found itself with a public-relations headache after the online world lit up with talk that the airline wouldn't fly Jews to Saudi Arabia.

That's not true. Saudi Arabia decides who gets in the country and who doesn't, not the airlines. Delta doesn't even fly there. Still, by Friday, a U.S. senator wanted an investigation, Delta was professing its tolerance, and some Twitter users called for went so far as to mention a boycott.

To explain:

Saudi Arabian Airlines is joining the SkyTeam Alliance, which includes Delta. So, it's possible that, starting next year, a traveler could buy an airline ticket that starts with a flight on Delta and ends with a flight on Saudi Arabian Airlines into Saudi Arabia.

Delta, like all airlines, asks travelers before they leave whether they have a visa to enter the country they're flying to. Yes? Welcome aboard. No? Sorry, you're not going anywhere.

Saudi Arabia, like all countries that require a visa for entry, decides who gets one. Airlines don't know why a visa was denied, only that the traveler doesn't have one.

The U.S. State Department says some Americans have reported being refused a Saudi visa because their passport reflected travel to Israel or that they were born in Israel. Also, Saudi Arabia's visa application asks the traveler's religion, causing some to suspect that putting down "Jewish" or for that matter "atheist" will hurt their chances of getting a visa. Saudi Arabia, like several countries, does not recognize Israel.

Because Saudi Arabian Airlines is becoming a member of SkyTeam, Delta was singled out in reports that ran Thursday and were passed around social media. U.S. carriers already partner with other airlines that fly to Saudi Arabia, including Air France and the German airline Lufthansa.

On Friday, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk said he wrote to the Federal Aviation Administration to ask for an investigation into whether Delta "violated U.S. law or regulation and to ensure no U.S. citizen is denied their right to fly solely on the basis of their religion."

Delta said on Friday that it does not discriminate, and pointed out that it doesn't fly to Saudi Arabia or codeshare with any airline that does. It said it does not plan to codeshare with Saudi Arabian Airlines. (A codeshare is when an airline places its flight designator, or "code," onto a flight operated by a different airline. The arrangement allows airlines to sell tickets on each other's flights.) Delta does have what's called an "interline agreement" with Saudi Arabian Airlines, which allows tickets to be sold that include multiple airlines for multiple legs of the trip.

Saudi Arabia also bars travelers from bringing in "pornographic materials or publications that violate the social norms of decency." The U.S. State Department tells travelers that Saudi officials ban "any item that is held to be contrary to the tenets of Islam, such as pork products and pornography. Imported and domestic audiovisual media and reading matter are censored."

It also said that Christmas decorations, fashion magazines, and videos considered suggestive by Saudi officials may be confiscated and the owner subject to penalties and fines.

While airlines check for passports and visas, they don't ask travelers about items that might be prohibited by the destination country.

Earlier this month Delta faced a public outcry after two soldiers complained in a video posted on YouTube that their unit returning from Afghanistan was charged $200 each to check a fourth bag. Delta ended up changing its baggage policy to allow four bags for free for troops in coach.