Summer is peak season for international air travel. And Americans love to fly abroad. Last year, more than 40 million of us did so, with more than a million flying to two countries: Israel and Taiwan. Even so, several airlines have erased those names from online route maps. Some are members of alliances led by major U.S. carriers. Some are major U.S. carriers. Their altered maps bear airline and alliance logos, sometimes even the logo of a U.S. tech giant supplying their maps.
It’s more than just strange to single out Israel and Taiwan for map erasure. It’s an Orwellian act denying reality and undermining the legitimacy of two democracies protected and supported for decades by the United States.
Why do it? At least for the U.S. carriers, the answer seems to be that map erasure of Israel and Taiwan is good for business abroad — as long as we don’t ask questions back home.
Pretending that rivals are less than what they are is a standard tactic for one country trying to bully another. So Iran challenges the sovereignty of a “hegemonic” Israel, while China challenges the sovereignty of the “renegade province” of Taiwan.
Challenges aside, it’s hard to say that Israel and Taiwan are not countries. Ask more than a million Americans visiting both each year. Israel and Taiwan have borders, governments, multiparty elections, and other trappings of liberal democratic statehood conspicuously missing from countries seeking to delegitimize them. Israel is a United Nations member recognized by more than 160 countries. Taiwan lost U.N. membership in the 1970s, but is still recognized formally or informally by more than 70 countries. Successive U.S. governments have protected both while pursuing more (historically) or less (currently) a “two-state solution” in the Middle East and a “One-China” policy in the Far East.
Given this geopolitical reality, it’s not surprising that Google’s default online map bearing the company logo names both countries. Google’s default cartography matches reality.
Many airlines use that Google map when designing their own online route maps. Most change little. They alter the Google map to highlight routes and destination cities or add company logos. Sometimes they also retain the Google logo. Resulting airline online route maps typically name all countries, including Israel and Taiwan, even if neither includes destination cities. Delta Air Lines and Austrian Airlines have this type of online route map. They “embrace” Israel and Taiwan cartographically.
Other airlines don’t. They make changes embracers make, but then go further. They erase Israel or Taiwan to “deny” their existence cartographically. Kuwait Airways denies Israel’s existence by singling it out for erasure. Air Canada denies Taiwan’s existence similarly. Saudia denies both countries similarly. They all do it with altered Google maps bearing Google logos — an Orwellian form of co-branding.
It may not be surprising that some airlines erase Israel or Taiwan from their online route maps. Kuwait Airways and Saudia are state-owned by countries not recognizing Israel. Airlines erasing Taiwan might curry favor with China.
But many denier airlines also belong to alliances led by U.S. carriers. Saudia and another Israel-denier, Lebanon-based MEA, belong to Delta’s SkyTeam Alliance. Air Canada belongs to United Airlines’ Star Alliance. Oneworld Alliance leader, American Airlines, erases Taiwan from its own online route maps. Altering Google maps to deny the existence of Israel or Taiwan is no bar to alliance membership, even leadership.
U.S. carriers, alliances and online mapmakers are just trying to get by commercially when they accommodate the geopolitics of certain countries seeking to delegitimize Israel and Taiwan. Accommodation via cartographic denial might prove profitable, but it undermines U.S. foreign policy and deeper Western values promoting democratic pluralism. For many Americans, especially those with a friend or family member in Tel Aviv or Taipei, it’s also offensive.
Accommodation abroad works for these U.S. airline industry players as long as we keep buying tickets and getting on board without questioning obvious contradictions between business strategy and U.S. foreign policy.
What if Americans did start asking questions? U.S. customers, shareholders and lawmakers could ask American CEO Doug Parker why Taiwan merits erasure from company online route maps — North Korea gets better treatment. They could ask United CEO Oscar Munoz what answer he got when posing the same question to his firm’s Taiwan-denying Canadian partner in the Star Alliance. They could ask Delta CEO Ed Bastian why Israel-denying Saudia and MEA are such great Middle East partners for SkyTeam. They could ask Google CEO Sundar Pichai why airlines should be able to alter Google maps virtually annihilating two long-standing U.S. partners while retaining Google logos apparently endorsing these Orwellian acts.
Imagine the awkward answers.
Company executives are not public-policy makers, but sometimes they take public-policy positions for business purposes. With Israel and Taiwan, we’ve let their positions be determined by warped geopolitics abroad promoting cartographic denial and national delegitimization. Insistent questions back home can change that — help company executives reform public-policy positions, redraw online route maps, and restore missing names to democracies we know are really there.
Paul M. Vaaler (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Joel Waldfogel (email@example.com) are professors at the University of Minnesota and co-authors of a new study in the Strategy Science academic research journal titled “Discriminatory Product Differentiation: The Case of Israel’s Omission from Airline Route Maps.”