Caught in a maelstrom over his company’s decision to cut ties with the National Rifle Association, Delta Air Lines chief executive Ed Bastian said Friday that his intention had been to “remain neutral” and “remove Delta from this [gun control] debate.” Delta, he said, is now planning to end discounts “for any group of a politically divisive nature.”
The declaration from Bastian came the day after Republican lawmakers in Georgia honored their threat to punish the Atlanta-based airline for ending the NRA’s group discounts; those legislators overwhelmingly approved a bill that was stripped of an earlier provision that would have granted a lucrative tax break to Delta.
In a memo issued to Delta employees and shared with the public, Bastian said he was “troubled” by the legislature’s action, as well as Delta’s position at the center of a national controversy. “I know it is not comfortable to be caught in a highly emotional debate,” he wrote, adding, “We are at our best when we bring our customers and our world closer together.”
The airline had been under attack from gun-rights activists since Saturday, when it abruptly discontinued flight discounts to the NRA’s annual convention and asked the gun-rights group to remove the information about the perk from the convention material. Delta had previously said that large group discounts were routine, and that it “has more than 2,000 such contracts in place.”
As the #BoycottNRA movement spread, NRA members — including some Georgia lawmakers — wondered why Delta wasn’t discontinuing any of those discounts, too. Now, Bastian said, it will drop them.
“Our people and our customers have a wide range of views on how to increase safety in our schools and public places, and we are not taking sides,” he wrote. “Our objective in removing any implied affiliation with the NRA was to remove Delta from this debate.”
Bastian wrote that “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. Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale. We are in the process of a review to end group discounts for any group of a politically divisive nature.”
The memo was issued hours after Georgia lawmakers carried out the threat that Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle (R) made to Delta earlier this week: If the airline did not restore discounted fares to NRA members, Republicans would strike down a $50 million sales-tax exemption on jet fuel from its tax-cut package. Delta, one of the state’s largest employers, would have been the primary beneficiary of the exemption.
Delta announced this week that it would stop offering discounted fares to NRA members amid the national gun-control debate after the deadly Valentine’s Day shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. United Airlines, Best Western, MetLife and at least a dozen other companies also cut perks and discounts for NRA members.
On Friday, Bastian wrote: “I have tremendous respect and admiration for Governor Nathan Deal, and thank him for the work he has done on the jet fuel tax exemption. He is a great friend to Delta. I know this action by the state legislature troubled him as it does all of us.”
The NRA has lashed out at companies that have dropped the discounts, saying they were participating in “a shameful display of political and civic cowardice.” But the group had also downplayed the importance of Delta’s action, saying the “loss of a discount will neither scare nor distract one single NRA member from our mission.”
In the days since the showdown between Delta and Georgia Republicans began, top blue-state politicians have encouraged Delta to relocate its hub from Atlanta.
In his memo Friday, Bastian wrote: “None of this changes the fact that our home is Atlanta and we are proud and honored to locate our headquarters here.”
He added: “And we are supporters of the 2nd Amendment, just as we embrace the entire Constitution of the United States.”