FOLLOWING SENATORS’ URGING, DOT IDENTIFIES, TAKES ACTION AGAINST AIRLINE PASSENGER DISCRIMINATION

Washington, DC) – Today, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) issued the following statement after the Department of Transportation (DOT) announced it had identified discriminatory practices by Kuwait Airlines. In May, the senators wrote to the DOT, citing instances of discrimination and urged the Department to investigate.

 

“We are pleased that the DOT has looked into and is taking action against the discriminatory practices of Kuwait Airways. As we wrote in May, it is troubling and unacceptable that airlines could be allowed to profit from serving U.S. customers and benefit from infrastructure paid for by U.S. taxpayers, while simultaneously infringing on the rights of passengers. DOT must enforce strong penalties to ensure Kuwait Airways immediately and permanently stops these unacceptable practices, as well as to deter other airlines from adopting similar discriminatory behavior.”

 

Press release and text of the letter from May are included below:

 

(Washington, DC) – U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Cory A. Booker (D-N.J.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) today sent a letter to Department of Transportation (DOT) Secretary Anthony Foxx and Department of Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker urging them to launch an investigation into reports that several Middle Eastern airline carriers are discriminating against passengers based on their country of origin or sexual orientation.

 

In the letter, the senators cited recent reports of unjust treatment by Saudi Arabian Airlines and Kuwait Airways to deter travel for Israeli-passport holders as well as an openly gay traveler.

 

“Two individuals – one who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel and one who is openly gay – filed complaints with the Department of Transportation detailing resistance they received from Saudi Arabian Airlines when they tried booking flights with a short layover in Saudi Arabia,” they wrote. “As alleged by these individuals, the airline told the dual U.S.-Israeli citizen he would need special permission from the Saudi Arabian government, which he would have been unlikely to receive.  The airline also allegedly told him he should refrain from bringing Tefillin, which are Jewish religious articles, on board the aircraft.  Saudi Arabian Airlines allegedly told the gay passenger she should conceal her sexual orientation while traveling on the airline.”

 

“These complaints come after an incident earlier this year in which a woman with an Israeli passport was refused entry on a flight on Kuwait Airways at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport.  According to reports of this incident, the airline refused to board the passenger because Kuwait Airways – which is owned by the government of Kuwait – refuses to recognize the State of Israel.”

 

The senators urged the Departments to take swift action if these reports are substantiated, as the DOT and Commerce Department have the legal authority to end discrimination and mistreatment by air carrier or foreign air carrier. Additionally, the Commerce Department has the ability to stifle other countries’ efforts to boycott the state of Israel and has previously done so through its Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance by imposing penalties on companies that propagate efforts to boycott Israel.

 

“If you find these practices illegal, it is imperative that you proceed with immediate enforcement action and end such discriminatory behavior.  It is troubling that two airlines possibly could be allowed to profit from serving U.S. passengers, benefit from infrastructure paid for by U.S. taxpayers, yet simultaneously infringe on the rights afforded all passengers. Any airline that ignores our laws should be punished to the maximum extent and possibly have their DOT-issued permit revoked that allows them to fly to and from U.S. airports.”

 

Full text of the letter is below:

 

Dear Secretaries Foxx and Pritzker:

 

We write with concern over recent reports and complaints of foreign air carriers appearing to discriminate against passengers in the U.S. on the basis of national origin or sexual orientation.  Within the last two weeks, two individuals – one who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Israel and one who is openly gay – filed complaints with the Department of Transportation detailing resistance they received from Saudi Arabian Airlines when they tried booking flights with a short layover in Saudi Arabia.  As alleged by these individuals, the airline told the dual U.S.-Israeli citizen he would need special permission from the Saudi Arabian government, which he would have been unlikely to receive.  The airline also allegedly told him he should refrain from bringing Tefillin, which are Jewish religious articles, on board the aircraft.  Saudi Arabian Airlines allegedly told the gay passenger she should conceal her sexual orientation while traveling on the airline.  These complaints come after an incident earlier this year in which a woman with an Israeli passport was refused entry on a flight on Kuwait Airways at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport to London’s Heathrow Airport.  According to reports of this incident, the airline refused to board the passenger because Kuwait Airways – which is owned by the government of Kuwait – refuses to recognize the State of Israel.  Yet the passenger was simply traveling to London.  The allegations this year follow other reports over the years of Kuwait Airways and Saudi Arabian Airlines refusing to allow others to travel on aircraft in the United States.

 

Congress has given the Department of Transportation the power to end discrimination and mistreatment.  49 USC § 40127(a) provides that an “air carrier or foreign air carrier may not subject a person in air transportation to discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, or ancestry.”  Moreover, 49 USC § 41310 prohibits “unreasonable discrimination” by air carriers.  The Department of Transportation has used its authority in the past to punish airlines who engage in discriminatory activity, imposing significant fines on carriers – both foreign and domestic – for discriminating against certain individuals and for failing to provide proper service.  The Department of Commerce also has authority in this area and is empowered to stifle other countries’ efforts to boycott the State of Israel.  The Export Administration Regulations prohibit businesses with a U.S.-presence from boycotting countries like Israel based on foreign laws or a request of a foreign government.  The Department of Commerce in fact has an Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance that is entrusted with ending such practices and has imposed penalties on companies that advance other countries’ efforts to boycott Israel.

 

We, as members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation and its Subcommittee on Aviation, Operations, Safety and Security, and other members who have a longstanding interest in this topic, strongly urge you to swiftly investigate the recent incidents involving Kuwait Airways and Saudi Arabian Airlines.  When past concerns about discrimination by these airlines against Israeli citizens have been raised with the Department of Transportation, the agency has asserted that the airlines are complying with federal law, contending they are barring access to individuals based merely on their citizenship or passport status – and not on their national origin, which is prohibited.  But even if that is true, these airlines are still prohibited from engaging in unreasonable discrimination against passengers – and nothing appears reasonable about prohibiting a person from flying non-stop from New York to London simply because they have an Israeli passport.  Likewise, when it comes to sexual orientation, we can think of no justification that would permit an airline to take that into consideration when selling a plane ticket.  We are unaware of the Department of Commerce investigating these airlines, but it is important that the Office of Anti-Boycott Compliance – if not other offices within the Department of Commerce – subject these airlines’ practices to thorough scrutiny as well

 

If you find these practices illegal, it is imperative that you proceed with immediate enforcement action and end such discriminatory behavior.  It is troubling that two airlines possibly could be allowed to profit from serving U.S. passengers, benefit from infrastructure paid for by U.S. taxpayers, yet simultaneously infringe on the rights afforded all passengers.  Any airline that ignores our laws should be punished to the maximum extent and possibly have their DOT-issued permit revoked that allows them to fly to and from U.S. airports.

 

We appreciate your focus on this issue and efforts to ensure all airlines obey our laws.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

 

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