How many airline passengers does it take to kill a $40 million tax break for Delta Air Lines? 13.
The Georgia legislature removed a jet-fuel tax break from a larger tax package Thursday. Lawmakers were upset that Delta, which is headquartered in Atlanta, dropped the National Rifle Association from a discount-fare program in an effort to appear neutral on gun policy.
After the firestorm, Delta will review all its marketing programs to avoid those that might become political, CEO Ed Bastian announced Friday.
But the airline said only 13 passengers ever bought tickets with an NRA discount. That translates into each discount costing the airline about $3 million in tax breaks.
“We are in the process of a review to end group discounts for any group of a politically divisive nature,” Bastian said in a note to employees.
The legislative flight played out against the Republican primary campaign to succeed Gov. Nathan Deal, who supported the jet-fuel tax break before it was removed.
Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, one of the primary candidates, gained attention by tweeting Monday that he would kill any tax break for Delta.
But state Sen. Michael Williams, a rival GOP candidate for governor, said Cagle only joined the fight after Senate Republicans agreed to block Delta's tax break.
“He didn’t have the gumption to say that until the Senate as a body, at least the Republican caucus, united and told him that we weren’t going to support it," Williams told Fox and Friends on Friday. “We had to send a message that we’re not going to support crony capitalism in Georgia."
Deal criticized the Delta controversy as an “unbecoming squabble,” but said he would sign the broader tax measure.
Bastian said he has great respect and admiration for Deal, who had worked to include the tax provision before it was removed.
“He is a great friend to Delta,” Bastian said. “I know this action by the state legislature troubled him as it does all of us.”
Delta had agreed Saturday to drop its marketing program with the National Rifle Association. The airline said it was an effort to remain neutral in the debate over gun policies, after the shooting deaths of 17 people on Feb. 14 at a Florida high school.
The airline doesn't disclose how many discount programs it has, airline spokesman Trebor Banstetter said. Delta had sold just 13 tickets under the discount program with the NRA, he said.
The NRA and conservatives in the Georgia legislature argued the change represented punishment for people who cherish the 2nd Amendment. Lawmakers threatened to remove a jet-fuel tax break, which had an estimated $40 million benefit for Delta, from a larger tax package unless the carrier reversed course.
“Our decision was not made for economic gain and our values are not for sale,” Bastian said. “This decision followed the NRA’s controversial statements after the recent school shootings in Florida. Our discounted travel benefit for NRA members could be seen as Delta implicitly endorsing the NRA. That is not the case.”
"Our objective in removing any implied affiliation with the NRA was to remove Delta from this debate," Bastian said.
On Thursday, the state Senate passed the tax measure 44-10 after removing the jet-fuel provision. The House – which had passed an earlier version with the jet-fuel provision – followed with a 135-24 vote.
Governors of New York and Virginia, a House lawmaker from Ohio and the mayor of Birmingham, Ala., were among officials who jabbed Georgia in the dispute and offered to have Delta move its headquarters from Atlanta.
But Bastian said the airline is staying put.
“None of this changes the fact that our home is Atlanta and we are proud and honored to locate our headquarters here. And we are supporters of the 2nd Amendment, just as we embrace the entire Constitution of the United States.”