How misinformation spread about Delta, Jews and flights to Saudi Arabia

An incendiary news story about Delta Air Lines flew quickly around the Internet this week. It left a vapor trail of misinformation and confusion as websites eagerly posted it without thoroughly checking the facts, while Delta was slow to adequately respond.

In January, Delta issued what was then a non-controversial news release, publicizing a new alliance with Saudi Arabian Airlines. Delta announced that the government-owned carrier will become a member of SkyTeam in 2012, joining more than a dozen other airlines in the global network that allows passengers to more easily transfer among each others’ flights. (Delta doesn’t control SkyTeam, but did support Saudi Arabian’s addition to it.)

In this Jan. 21, 2010 file photo, passengers walk past a Delta Airlines 747 aircraft in McNamara Terminal at Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport in Romulus, Mich. (Paul Sancya/AP)

The news attracted little attention until this week, when it exploded online in an especially inflammatory way. Several news stories reported that because of the new alliance, Delta would not allow Jewish passengers on flights to Saudi Arabia. Some stories also suggested that Delta customers may be prohibited from carrying religious items except those related to Islam.

Delta Airlines: Anti-Soldier, Anti-Jew, Anti-Christian, but Now Pro Racist Muslims,” was the headline at a Chicago Tribune opinion blog. “Delta Upholding the Banning of Jews, Religious Items From Flights to Saudi Arabia?,” asked the Village Voice. Fox News parodied an old Delta advertising slogan:  “Delta: We Love to Fly — Without Jews (and Bibles) — and it Shows.”

Yet only a few hours after the stories were posted, some of the media organizations and websites began to walk them back. USA Today, which prominently displayed the story on its site Thursday afternoon, removed it and replaced it with a cryptic message that “an early version of this story contained incomplete information.” The Village Voice kept the original story online, but added a parenthetical note that it may be “just a huge rumor.”

Incomplete stories obscure complicated facts

So what’s the “complete” information?  And how much of the story is a rumor? The answer is more complicated than most of the news stories let on.

First, it’s important to emphasize that Delta itself doesn’t fly to Saudi Arabia and has no plans to do so. When Saudi Arabian Airlines joins SkyTeam next year, Delta will sell tickets for the Middle Eastern carrier and allow easier connections between the two airlines, but the actual flights will not be on Delta planes. Several other U.S. airlines — such as United, American, and US Airways — already participate in similar alliances with overseas carriers that serve Saudi Arabia.

Second, it’s undisputable that Jews — especially those with Israeli passports — often face obstacles traveling to Arab countries, including being hassled and detained — but it’s overstating the situation to speak of “the banning of Jews.” The U.S. State Department notes that, “There have been reports by U.S. citizens that they were refused a Saudi visa because their passports reflected travel to Israel or indicated that they were born in Israel.”

However, Rabbi Irwin Kula of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership told USA Today that he knows many Jewish professionals who visit Saudi Arabia “all the time,” and several Jewish American travelers have posted online accounts of trips they’ve taken to Saudi Arabia without incident.

Third, the reports of banned Bibles are part fact and part hyperbole. It is indeed common practice for non-Islamic religious items to be confiscated from travelers entering Saudi Arabia. (As late as 2007, the Saudi Arabian Airlines website noted that such items as Bibles, crucifixes, and Stars of David could not be brought into the country.)

But it’s not accurate to suggest that Delta is outlawing Bibles on its flights. If a passenger’s religious item is confiscated, it’s because a Saudi Arabian government official takes it after the visitor lands in that country, not because Delta seizes it in Cincinnati or Salt Lake City. And, of course, Saudi Arabia’s narrow-minded ban applies regardless of what airline a passenger arrives on.

A fast moving story and a passive response

This week’s explosion of news stories about Delta’s Saudi alliance apparently was sparked by the controversial conservative website WorldNetDaily, which is best known for relentlessly pushing discredited allegations about President Obama’s birth certificate.

In a story posted Wednesday (“Delta adopts Saudi ‘no-Jew’ fly policy”), the site details a series of letters exchanged between Delta officials and Joseph Lovitky, a Washington lawyer associated with the American Center for Law and Justice, a Christian advocacy group. The story also quotes former Republican Congressman Fred Grandy and his wife Catherine, who complained about the Delta alliance on a Boston radio talk show.

“It looks like Delta will be the first Shariah-compliant airline in the United States,” Catherine Grandy said.

Within 24 hours, the story had taken on legs. The left-leaningHuffington Post ran two commentaries criticizing Delta, and the Religion News Service sent out a widely-reprinted story headlined, “U.S. Jews not able to fly on Delta flights to Saudi Arabia.” (That was the story USA Today featured — then removed — from its website.) Despite the headline, nothing in the story asserted that “U.S. Jews” are prohibited from the flights.

The mainstream media continued to report on the controversy Friday morning, though some journalists and websites began pointing out the inaccuracies in the earlier stories.

“So much of the article is incorrect that I don’t even know where to start,” wrote travel blogger Steven Frischling about one of the Huffington Post columns.

But while some of the accusations against Delta were at best exaggerated, the airline didn’t help itself with its passive and vague response, which consisted of little more than issuing brief written statements.

As public relations executive Brad Phillips noted on his blog, Delta initially issued a “boilerplate and totally unhelpful” response that didn’t directly address the alleged ban of Jewish passengers except to say,“visa requirements to enter any country are dictated by that nation’s government, not the airlines.”

Only after the story continued to grow did Delta issue a more specific response that stated the company’s non-discrimination policy and sought to distance itself from its Saudi partner.  Delta said Saudi Arabian Airlines would not enjoy the same kind of reciprocal benefits extended to most other SkyTeam members, such as codesharing (allowing Saudi flights to carry Delta flight numbers) and letting Saudi Airlines passengers earn Delta frequent-flier miles.

Still, that did little to silence the airline’s critics. Illinois Republican Senator Mark Kirk — citing the now-removed USA Today story — called for a Federal Aviation Administration investigation. Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League called on Delta to ensure that neither it nor its partners facilitate discrimination, “whatever the regulations of Saudi Arabia.” The group issued similar appeals to other U.S. airlines that align themselves with carriers serving the Middle Eastern country.

Indeed, for all the misinformation and fury the Delta controversy generated this week, it does raise a legitimate subject — whether U.S. corporations should partner with overseas companies or foreign governments that don’t uphold American values. That issue is much larger than a single company, single industry, or single foreign country. And this week’s breathless and hastily written stories failed to do it justice.

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  • risa bear

    Seems to me the tainted meat in this story came more from WorldNetDaily than Huffpo. But both have roots in the blogdominion, where article-wide fact-checking has been hard to fit into the budgets. Meanwhile the MSM has been deliberately chucking it from the budgets. Journalism is simply hard to find in 2011.

  • http://www.facebook.com/roblimo Robin Miller

    I am a reporter. I am a Jew. I have flown to Riyadh on Saudi Arabian Airlines — first class, no less, at the Kingdom’s expense. They knew I was a Jew, too. I mean, the guys from the Ministry of Telecom and IT who invited me to speak at their conference did, anyway. 

    Amusing: my visa was a little messed up so I was detained by airport security until some ministry guys could come and vouch for me. The security chief pointed out, correctly, that I was detained in his pleasant office, where we shared cigarettes and he fed me shwarma and we had a pleasant time, while the one time he visited Miami, he was held in a cell, behind bars, until they got HIS visa straightened out. Sigh.

  • http://profiles.yahoo.com/u/CKQ73CZHQAEEMMJ4Q23IHV2OFE Amy

    If Delta is to be criticized for having even an arms-length, indirect relationship with Saudi Arabian Airlines, it’s also worth noting that half of SAA’s fleet is made up of Boeing airplanes, manufactured right here in the U.S. So where’s the outcry against Boeing for making billions of dollars in profits doing business with an airlines that “bans U.S. Jews”?

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  • http://twitter.com/Oculogyric GARY LEVIN

    Dear Wes;  Intelligent question you pose there. I suppose we could refuse Saudi Oil, if we had any integrity, especially when we are too lazy to use our resources in the U.S. and Alaska. This is a deal that is convenient for the US government and big oil companies.  Let’s put some of our unemployed to work drilling for oil, and natural gas, which is abundantly plentiful. We have motivation to create a new green industry for HFC lighting, solar panels, wind turbines, so what is up with oil?  At any rate we can no longer afford or depend on oil from the middle east. 

  • http://twitter.com/wesmorgan1 wesmorgan1

    So, let’s summarize.  Assuming that this article is accurate, I’ll be able to earn Delta miles for using SAA, but SAA patrons won’t earn miles usable on Delta flights.  It’s also clear–to anyone who stops to think for a moment–that an airline, even a state-owned carrier, isn’t responsible for what the customs agents do upon your arrival.  I fail to see the controversy. 

    Shall we extend the outrage to those US airports that allow SAA flights?  C’mon, let’s call upon JFK and Washington Dulles to toss SAA aside!  While we’re at it, how about boycotting United – after all, Air China is part of Star Alliance, and we can’t support the PRC, right?

    This is yet another tempest in a teapot – nothing but selective outrage.  Bleah.

  • http://twitter.com/wesmorgan1 wesmorgan1

    Does your definition of “unacceptable” extend to those oil companies doing business in Saudi Arabia?  That country is the second largest exporter of crude oil to the US (just behind Canada, in the most recent statistics I could find); since the only oil company in Saudi Arabia (Aramco) is state-owned, do you have the same advice for ExxonMobil et al.?  Supporting their oil company is the same as supporting their airline, yes?

  • http://profiles.google.com/gmlevinmd GARY LEVIN

    Let’s not whitewash this misinformation. Any US airline that endorses Saudi sharia law should lose it’s rights to be incorporated in the United States of America. Whether it is a Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, passenger is immaterial, this is a very slippery slope and the new explanation is still unacceptable.