ATW Editor's Blog

Delta CEO takes the high road

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Delta Air Lines has withdrawn its discount offer for members of the US National Rifle Association (NRA) following the mass shooting in February at a Florida school that left 17 students and staff dead.

Delta was not alone among large US companies that ended their NRA discounts and distanced themselves from the powerful pro-gun lobbying organization. Others who took similar steps include car rental firms, banks, insurance companies and another major airline, United (American made clear it never offered a discount program).

But Delta’s decision has been more costly. Lawmakers in its home state of Georgia retaliated by threatening to withdraw a jet fuel tax exemption that would save Delta millions of dollars unless Delta restores the NRA discount.

Delta CEO Ed Bastian isn’t backing down. In a memo to employees he posted on the airline’s website March 2, he made clear that he is taking the high road. “Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale,” he wrote. He added that Delta was in the process of a review “to end group discounts for any group of a politically divisive nature”.

A cynic could argue that those companies that cut ties with the NRA are betting any loss of sales will be more than made up by those who support their decision and will especially be appreciated by the younger people who are their future customer base.

But I don’t see in Bastian’s memo anything other than courageous leadership and determination to do the right thing. He acknowledges that among Delta’s employees and customers, there is a wide range of views on the issue.

“We are not taking sides. Our objective in removing any implied affiliation with the NRA was to remove Delta from this debate,” he says.

That’s not, of course, how NRA supporters or the Georgia lawmakers regard Delta’s decision.

But what the lawmakers are doing highlights the recurring problem that post-deregulation US airlines must contend with; airlines are still regarded as “state-owned” entities. So lawmakers believe they can dictate what products airlines offer (seat pitch), how those products are sold (ancillary fees) and now, apparently, which organizations are offered discounts. Meanwhile, they slap on high taxes and fees, but don’t believe it “fair” for airlines to separate those fees—as other service industries are allowed to—so that customers can see how much of their airfare goes to the government.

The Georgia lawmakers’ action is not just shockingly vindictive. It shows appalling disregard for a company that is a huge jobs and economic driver for their state and which, at the end of the day, is a “customer” they are elected to serve. Not the other way round.

Karen Walker karen.walker@informa.com

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