Delta CEO says, 'Our values are not for sale,' after Georgia lawmakers drop tax break

  • Delta says it will consider ending discounts for "politically divisive" groups.
  • Georgia lawmakers then pull a jet-fuel tax break from a tax bill.
  • Delta's CEO says the company's decision was an attempt to stay "neutral."

Delta Air Lines last week waded into a raging debate over gun control in the wake of the shooting massacre at a Florida high school only to have the measure backfire in its home state. Now it is reviewing discounts for other "politically divisive" groups.

"Our objective in removing any implied affiliation with the NRA was to remove Delta from this debate," CEO Ed Bastian told employees in a memo, which was titled "Delta and the school safety debate."

It did the opposite.

Georgia lawmakers dropped a jet-fuel tax break that Delta wanted from a tax bill they passed on Thursday, punishing the airline after it said it would end discounts for National Rifle Association members attending the gun-rights group's annual meeting in Dallas. United Airlines followed Delta's action with their own.

Thirteen people booked tickets with Delta's NRA discount for the upcoming conference, Delta spokesman Trebor Banstetter told CNBC.

"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 now wants to review what perks it offers to other groups.

"We are in the process of a review to end group discounts for any group of a politically divisive nature," Bastian said.

The airline, one of Georgia's largest private employers, is no stranger to political controversy and celebrated two high-profile victories this year.

One, over a contentious sale of airplanes from Canada's Bombardier, was a big win over aerospace giant Boeing. Delta also secured another win in getting Qatar Airways to agree to open its books, after repeated complaints that the airline and two other Middle Eastern airlines receive government subsidies that make it difficult for U.S. carriers to compete.

Atlanta-based Delta's move to end group discounts for NRA members may not have had Georgia politics in mind.

"Delta was playing the national game, and the politicians were playing the local game," said Gary Leff, a travel expert and author of the blog View from the Wing. "Delta jumped on a bandwagon, but having done this they're stuck with it."

Other states have courted Delta, which has an overwhelming presence at Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world's busiest. The airline also has a strong presence in New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Detroit and Seattle.

The airline did not appear to want to pick up and leave.

"None of this changes the fact that our home is Atlanta and we are proud and honored to locate our headquarters here," Bastian said.

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