NYC Electeds, Advocates Call on DOT and Port Authority to Enforce Laws Against Kuwait Airlines

New York City elected officials, Jewish community leaders and advocates gathered on the steps of City Hall on Wednesday to call on the Port Authority of N.Y. and N.J. and the U.S. Department of Transportation to enforce federal anti-discrimination laws to stop Kuwait Airways’ discriminatory refusal to sell tickets to Israeli passport holders.

In 2013, Eldad Gatt, an Israeli national, was unable to purchase a ticket with Kuwait Airways because he holds an Israeli passport. With assistance from the Lawfare Project, Gatt filed a formal complaint with the U.S. DOT and in September 2015 the U.S. DOT ruled that Kuwait Airways had “unreasonably discriminated” against Gatt in violation of 49 U.S.C. § 41310. On September 30, 2015, the Transportation Department sent a letter to Kuwait Airways informing them that the decision not to sell tickets to Israeli citizens is in violation of U.S. anti-boycott laws and regulations, which are designed to prohibit and/or penalize cooperation with international economic boycotts in which the U.S. does not participate. After receiving a letter by the airlines requesting reconsideration, the DOT sent another letter directing that KAC “cease and desist from refusing to transport Israeli citizens between the U.S. and any third country where they are allowed to disembark based on the laws of that country.” If KAC fails to comply with this obligation, “the Department will have no choice but to pursue further administrative and/or judicial action.”

But to date, Kuwait airlines have yet to overrule that decision, and the DOT has yet to enforce to open skies rules to terminate all Kuwait Airways service between New York and London.

On Wednesday, The New York City Council Members and the Lawfare Project publicized a letter they sent to the U.S. DOT and the Port Authority demanding enforcement action or termination of Kuwait Airways’ lease and ability to fly out of JFK Airport. The letter was signed by Council Members Rory Lancman, Daniel Garodnick, Corey Johnson, David Greenfield, Helen Rosenthal, Chaim Deutsch, Karen Koslowitz, Mark Treyger, Fernando Cabrera and Mark Levine, Chair of the NYC Jewish Caucus.

“The Department of Transportation’s decision is a crucial step toward the elimination of unlawful discrimination in air travel and the protection of human rights,” said Brooke Goldstein, director of the Lawfare Project. “Now, it is imperative that DOT and the Port Authority staunchly enforce this decision such that Kuwait Airways ceases its deplorable conduct. All travelers within the United States should expect to be treated equally in our nation’s airports, regardless of their ethnicity or national origin.”

“In a city and a country that welcomes diversity, no one should be denied an airplane ticket because of where they were born,” said Lancman. “This blatant discrimination against Israeli passport holders is not only immoral; it’s illegal. The Port Authority and the U.S. DOT must take enforcement action against Kuwait Airways immediately.”

Councilman Greenfield called on Governors Andrew Cuomo ((D-NY) and Chris Christie (R-NJ) to speak out on the matter as an important show of support to the State of Israel. “I hope that we will hear from the governors, both of whom have a very pro-Israel record, and one of whom is running for president,” said Greenfield. “I really would hope to see that they would come out and speak out against what is very clearly anti-Semitic actions by an airline that is trying do business with the United States.”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that while we may not be able to control what governments abroad do, the U.S. can protest practices rooted in bias and restrictions targeting specific populations by entities abroad. “When they seek to export their blatantly discriminatory policies to their activities to the United States, then we can, we must speak out and act to ban such practices op prevent such companies from doing business here,” he said. “It is time for Kuwait to make a choice: shape up or no more shipping out.”

Jeffrey Lovitky, the attorney for Eldad Gatt, stated at the press conference: “Kuwait Airways’ action establishes an intolerable precedent for the airline industry. If an airline stated that it would not accept passengers with Mexican passports, people would justifiably claim discrimination against Hispanics. If an airline stated that it would not accept passengers with Saudi passports, people would justifiably claim discrimination against Muslim passengers. The same is true here, except that the discrimination is directed against citizens of the Jewish state.”

The Department of Transportation insisted that it will move to take action in enforcing the anti-discrimination laws. “As we have continued to make clear, the Department will not tolerate discrimination by airlines against passengers, and we will take decisive action to enforce that point,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in an emailed statement to Jewish Insider. “We are committed to ensuring that Israeli citizens traveling from the U.S. to the U.K. be given the same flight options and freedoms as other passengers. Protecting the civil rights of airline passengers is a Department priority.”

The office of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo provided Jewish Insider with a letter (dated November 3, 2015) that the Port Authority sent to Kuwait Airways, signed by Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye and a Terminal 4 official at JFK. “[We] expect that Kuwait Airways will fully comply with [its] lease obligations,” the letter states.

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