The Internet and Twitterverse is buzzing with discussion about Delta Air Lines' decision to include Saudi Arabian Airlines in its SkyTeam alliance program. This isn't news — the partnership was announced in January — but erroneous accusations that the agreement will discriminate against Jews flying with Delta has led many online to denounce the airline.
On Friday, Delta issued a new statement clarifying it has not struck a codesharing deal with Saudi Arabian Airlines, but rather has agreed to a "standard interline agreement."
The controversy seems to have been sparked by two misleading articles published Thursday by USA Today and The Huffington Post. Rabbi Jason Miller penned The Huffington Post article, writing, "[It is] especially troubling to learn that 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." Rabbi Miller's quote, in fact, is not correct.
USA Today pulled its original article, citing "incomplete information,"and now directs readers to a new post with the headline "Airline to Jewish rumor: 'Delta does not discriminate.' " The post also includes a response from Delta, which reads, in part: "Some have raised questions about whether Saudi Arabian Airlines' membership in SkyTeam means Delta is adopting any type of policies that could present barriers to travel for some passengers, including Jewish customers. For this particular concern, it's important to realize that visa requirements to enter any country are dictated by that nation's government, not the airlines, and they apply to anyone entering the country regardless of whether it's by plane, bus or train." The company's response can be viewed in full here.
USA Today later posted an additional story explaining how the erroneous article was first published and quoted industry experts who said that Delta Air Lines was being treated unfairly.
The original USA Today story drew the attention of U.S. Senator Mark Kirk, who cited it in a letter to the Federal Aviation Administration. "I am deeply concerned by the June 23, 2011, report in USA Today entitled 'US Jews may not be able to fly on Delta flights to Saudi Arabia'," Kirk wrote. "According the report, Delta Air Lines may have entered into an agreement with Saudi Arabia that prohibits Americans of the Jewish faith from flying solely on the basis of their religion."
FAA spokesperson Diane Spitaliere told msnbc.com that the issue is not in the purview of the agency, but instead would be addressed by the Department of Transportation. Bill Mosley, a spokesperson for DOT, said that the issue involves visas and would be handled by the Department of State. Msnbc.com is awaiting a comment from that agency.
A Saudi Arabian Airlines spokesperson contacted by msnbc.com declined to be identified and did not comment on the issue.
The U.S. State Department advises travelers that U.S. citizens have reported being refused a Saudi visa "because their passports reflected travel to Israel or indicated that they were born in Israel."
In its statement released this afternoon, Delta said it "does not discriminate nor do we condone discrimination against any of our customers in regards to age, race, nationality, religion, or gender."
"Delta does not operate service to Saudi Arabia and does not codeshare with any airline that serves that country. Delta does not intend to codeshare or share reciprocal benefits, such as frequent flier benefits, with Saudi Arabian Airlines, which we have confirmed with SkyTeam, an Amsterdam-based 14-member global airline alliance.
"Delta’s only agreement with Saudi Arabian Airlines is a standard industry interline agreement, which allows passengers to book tickets on multiple carriers, similar to the standard interline agreements American Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines have with Saudi Arabian Airlines."
Greg Lemon, a spokesperson for Sen. Kirk, said the lawmaker is still pursuing an investigation into the matter.
3 p.m. update: The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement Friday afternoon calling on Delta to ensure that it would “not be a party” to discriminatory policies.
Michael Salberg, director of international affairs for ADL, told msnbc.com that the organization does not want U.S. airlines to fly or partner with airlines that fly to Saudi Arabia until the country clearly states that it does not discriminate against non-Muslim visitors.
The Saudi embassy in Washington D.C. issued a statement Friday on behalf of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that read: "Rumors being circulated via the Internet regarding passenger flight restrictions on Saudi Arabian Airlines are completely false. The Government of Saudi Arabia does not deny visas to U.S. citizens based on their religion."
The embassy's statement, Salberg said, doesn’t address reports that people with Israeli stamps in their passports are denied visas, and that the country does not permit the display of non-Islamic religious items.
"That’s the discriminatory activity that we don’t want to see U.S. air carriers participating in, even indirectly," he said.
The Saudi embassy told CNN that it does not deny visas because of Israeli passport stamps. However, the embassy noted that since Saudi Arabia does not recognize Israel as a country, it does not issue visas to Israeli passport holders. The embassy also told CNN that Israel doesn't grant visas to Saudi Arabians.
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