Sometimes airlines have the right to say ‘no’


Kuwait Airways had every right to refuse to allow an Israeli passenger on its flight, as evidenced by a German court whose verdict backed the airline.

When a court in Frankfurt recently rejected an Israeli passenger’s discrimination claim against the airline after he was barred from a Frankfurt-Bangkok flight in 2016 despite having a valid ticket, the court was upholding the right of Kuwait Airways to refuse to carry Israeli citizens on any of its flights. The national carrier had based its decision on a Kuwaiti law from 1964 that forbids its citizens from doing business with Israeli citizens. The court ruled that it was not reasonable to expect the airline “to fulfill a contract if in doing so it committed a violation of the laws of its own country”. The court said it did not have to decide whether the Kuwaiti law itself was reasonable or whether it could stand up to scrutiny under German or European law. The court also rejected the passenger’s claim for compensation, ruling that the German anti-discrimination law applied only to race, ethnic background or religion, not to a specific nationality.

The passenger was not discriminated against as he alleged. As part of the Arab League’s boycott of Israel, it is the longstanding policy of Kuwait’s flag carrier airline to deny service to Israeli passport holders. Besides, he filed his lawsuit and he lost.

The passenger was also not being very reasonable. The airline’s cancellation came a few days before his scheduled departure in August 2016, so he had time to book another flight. He did not do so. The airline offered to book him on a nonstop flight to Bangkok with another carrier but he refused the replacement flight. Instead, he insisted the airline should have to accept him as a passenger when legally that was not the case. Had the airline allowed him on board when he revealed he had an Israeli passport, it would have risked repercussions, including fines and even jail terms for its employees. The risks were not reasonable, neither from the point of view of the airline nor the German court.

It is doubtful that Kuwait Airlines used what happens to Arab passengers flying on Western airlines to back up its argument in court. If it had, the court would have seen what are the real blatant violations of civil rights laws. Airlines might take Arab passengers aboard but it’s what happens to them after that which is unacceptable. In 2015, passengers at Midway Airport were not permitted to fly aboard Southwest Airlines flights when other passengers claimed to be afraid to fly with them because they were speaking Arabic or appeared to be Muslim. The same year, the same airline removed a passenger from a flight at Los Angeles International Airport for speaking Arabic. In 2016, a Muslim man was removed from an American Airlines flight after a flight attendant publicly announced his name, seat number and said she would be “watching” him. A Muslim family were also escorted off a United Airlines flight for “how they looked”.

There’s a name for these things: Flying while Muslim. It’s an expression referring to the problems Muslim passengers have on Western airplanes. This discrimination should not be tolerated by passengers or by airlines that are legally charged with transporting their customers in an equal and nondiscriminatory manner, without regard to their religious affiliation. Arbitrarily removing passengers of Muslim or Middle East background without reasonable cause or explanation is against the law.

Kuwait Airways did none of this. It did not discriminate against the Israeli passenger. He simply was not holding a valid passport from a country recognized by Kuwait. The airline kept to its policy, which was upheld by a European court.