Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian defended the Atlanta-based airline’s recent removal of a group discount for National Rifle Association (NRA) members, telling Delta employees in a March 2 memo “our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale.”

Bastian released the memo a day after the Georgia state legislature passed a tax bill in which a fuel tax exemption for Delta—which reportedly would have saved the carrier approximately $40 million per year—had been excised from the legislation by pro-NRA Georgia lawmakers as a protest against the state’s largest private employer.

The controversy stemmed from divergent political activism in the US following a February mass shooting at a Florida high school in which 17 people were killed.

Bastian explained that on Feb. 24, Delta rescinded a one-time group travel discount for the NRA’s annual meeting, and asked NRA to remove the Delta name and logo from NRA’s website. “The decision followed the NRA’s controversial statements after the recent school shootings in Florida,” Bastian said. “Our discounted travel benefit for NRA members could be seen as Delta implicitly endorsing the NRA. That is not the case.”

After the Delta decision was announced, disagreeing Georgia lawmakers, including the state’s lieutenant governor, zeroed in on the fuel tax exemption element of the state’s imminent tax legislation.

“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.

Bastian admitted the decision created controversy at Delta. “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,” Bastian said. “Our objective in removing any implied affiliation with the NRA was to remove Delta from this debate … we are supporters of the 2nd Amendment, just as we embrace the entire Constitution of the United States.”

Bastian indicated the airline was in the process of a review to end group discounts “for any group of a politically divisive nature.”

As the controversy swirled in Georgia during the week, other US states— including direct pitches from the governors of Connecticut and Virginia— offered themselves as a possible new Delta home-base.

Bastian, however, demurred. “None of this changes the fact that our home is in Atlanta and we are proud and honored to locate our headquarters here,” Bastian said. “I have tremendous respect and admiration for [Georgia] Governor Nathan Deal, and thank him for the work he has done on the jet fuel exemption. He is a great friend to Delta. I know this action by the state legislature troubled him as it does all of us.”

Deal signed the tax bill into law March. 2

Chicago-based United Airlines also alerted the NRA on Feb. 24 that the airline would no longer offer a discounted rate to the NRA annual meeting and, like Delta, asked to have United’s information removed from the NRA website. The same day, Dallas/Ft. Worth-based American Airlines tweeted “to clarify questions we have received … American does not offer discounted group travel rates to the NRA.” FedEx, too, weighed in, saying the company "has never provided any donation or sponsorship to the NRA" while acknowledging "the NRA is one of hundreds of organizations in our alliances/association marketing program whose members receive discounted rates for FedEx shipping."

Other US airlines to-date have been publicly silent on the matter.

Mark Nensel