Delta CEO Insists “We are Not Taking Sides” in US Gun Debate

ATLANTA (AP) — Delta Air Lines showed no signs Friday of backing away from a decision to cancel discounts for the National Rifle Association, despite a revenge move by state leaders that deprived the airline of a significant tax break.

Atlanta-based Delta released an internal memo CEO Ed Bastian sent to employees that insists the airline’s aim is to stay neutral in the gun debate roiling the country since last month’s deadly shooting at a Florida high school. The memo appeared roughly at the same time that GOP Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a broad tax bill that Republican lawmakers had amended to kill a proposed tax break on jet fuel. The break would have saved Delta millions of dollars.

“While Delta’s intent was to remain neutral, some elected officials in Georgia tied our decision to a pending jet fuel tax exemption, threatening to eliminate it unless we reversed course,” Bastian said. “Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale.”

Delta said the discounted fares had been available for a short time and were only for NRA members purchasing flights to the group’s 2018 convention in Dallas. Still, it triggered a showdown with pro-gun Republican lawmakers in Georgia. GOP Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle vowed to punish Delta for crossing the NRA and led the charge to eliminate the tax break on jet fuel.

Cagle, who is running for governor, defended the move against Delta on Friday, saying that although the airline is a “beloved bedrock” of Georgia’s economy, the company’s message to conservatives was: “We find your views deplorable.”

“We cannot continue to allow large companies to treat conservatives differently than other customers, employees and partners,” Cagle wrote in an opinion piece published by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution . “The voters who elected us and believe strongly in our rights and liberties expect and deserve no less.”

Deal, a term-limited Republican serving his final year, swiftly and quietly signed the tax bill, tweeting that he immediately wanted Georgia taxpayers to reap savings on their 2017 income tax returns. He made no mention of the Delta controversy.

Other Republicans weren’t so quiet.

“We had to send a message,” state Sen. Michael Williams, another GOP gubernatorial candidate, told “Fox & Friends” on Friday. He said Delta had “tried to interfere in the legislative process.”

Delta isn’t the only company to take action since the Feb. 14 slayings of 17 students and educators in Parkland, Florida, by a gunman armed with an AR-15 assault-style rifle. Walmart, Kroger and Dick’s Sporting Goods have tightened their gun sales policies. Meanwhile, MetLife, Hertz and others have joined Delta in ending business ties with the NRA.

Pro-gun lawmakers may have won a legislative victory in Georgia, where Delta is one of the largest employers with 33,000 employees statewide. But the threat of losing a hefty tax break failed to budge Delta from its decision to distance itself from the NRA.

The fuel-tax exemption was worth at least an estimated $38 million to Delta and other airlines. It hadn’t been controversial until Delta crossed the NRA last weekend.

“I hope they are better at flying airplanes than timing P.R. announcements,” said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston, a Republican.

The Senate passed the broader tax measure 44-10 Thursday after it was stripped of the fuel tax exemption, with Democrats accounting for all of the no votes. The House — which had passed an earlier version with the jet fuel exemption before the Delta controversy erupted — followed with a 135-24 vote.

The Delta provision barely came up Thursday in either legislative chamber during debate on the underlying tax bill, designed in part to give back to Georgia taxpayers $5.2 billion in extra state revenue expected over the next five years because of the recent federal tax overhaul.

Among Democrats voting against the tax bill was Sen. Nikema Williams of Atlanta, who applauded companies that have taken swift action on guns after the Florida tragedy. She said Delta’s decision to end its NRA discounts led her to support the jet fuel tax break.

“The small steps that Delta and Dick’s Sporting Goods are taking, to take a stand and say enough is enough, is what we all need to be doing as adults,” Williams said. “We’re the leaders of this state and we need to be coming together for solutions, not bullying corporations who are trying to do the right thing.”

Critics of the GOP effort to retaliate against Delta have warned it could backfire by harming Georgia’s ability to lure businesses — including Amazon, which recently named Atlanta a finalist in its search for a second headquarters.

“It definitely could have an effect when an outside company looks at something that happens this quickly around election time to one of the largest employers in the state,” said William Hatcher, a professor at Augusta University who studies economic development. “But will it be the dominant factor? I don’t think so.”