In the wake of the school shooting massacre in Florida a month ago, Delta Air Lines announced it would no longer offer discounted travel to members of the National Rifle Association. The NRA opposes banning the public sale of military-style firearms. Delta was one of a number of travel companies last month to cut ties with the NRA. Delta said it was attempting to stay neutral on divisive issues and was reviewing its programs with other controversial groups. In response, the state legislature of Georgia stripped from a pending bill tax breaks for airlines on jet fuel purchases, impacting Atlanta-based Delta far more than others. As lieutenant governor of the state, Republican Casey Cagle presides over the state senate and served as spokesperson for the decision. Georgians will elect a new governor in November; Cagle is running. The NRA gave him an A-plus rating in 2010 for his support of gun rights. Lawmakers in Florida reportedly have considered similar ways to punish companies that distanced themselves from the NRA.
Today’s advisor is Atlanta-based Brandon Strauss of KesselRun Corporate Travel Solutions.
What could be more inconsequential than shutting down an airline affinity program that yielded its benefactor only 13 tickets? Apparently, for the Georgia Legislature, Delta Air Lines pulling the plug on its National Rifle Association incentive program is bad business. But even in our new world of “alternative facts” can we really call this anything other than what it is?
“Absolute, pure politics,” said Jason Carter.
Carter, a former Georgia state senator and the 2014 Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, thinks there is no other way to look at the legislature’s move. In response to Delta’s break from the NRA, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle has caused the Georgia Legislature to kill a proposed $40 million jet fuel tax break for the Atlanta-based airline.
“From his perspective, Casey Cagle sees no downside in this decision,” according to Carter. “This gives him the opportunity to get his name recognized in what will no doubt be a highly contested Republican primary for governor. Cagle’s donor base will be inspired and he is apparently willing to bet that Delta won’t actually pull out of Atlanta when it has such a massive infrastructure investment at Hartsfield.”
While Cagle may be absolutely right, Delta’s break with the NRA is the smart business decision. The forfeited tax break may amount to a modest down payment that will pay dividends.
I have little doubt that Delta’s decision to sever its ties with the NRA was right for both the airline and the overwhelming majority of its customers. I might even further suggest that Delta’s stance is good for the State of Georgia. Cagle’s political gamble is that there is enough sentiment in the state’s House of Representatives and the electorate to carry the day. The numbers suggest otherwise.
In the latest polling, most Americans favor stricter gun laws. Comprehensive background checks prior to gun purchases are now supported by 69 percent of gun-owning NRA members, 78 percent of gun owners who are not NRA members and 89 percent of those who don’t own guns. Florida just passed its first significant gun control laws in the past decade. The retail stores that raised the minimum age for gun purchases to 21 include Walmart, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Kroger and L.L. Bean.
Among travel-related suppliers, United Airlines, Hertz, Alamo, Best Western and others also have cut ties with the NRA.
Perhaps Lt. Governor Cagle has forgotten the corporate backlash mounted against other states for politically divisive decisions. In 2015, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff canceled all programs that would bring employees or customers to Indiana after then-Gov. Mike Pence signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Benioff went as far as providing Salesforce’s Indiana-based employees relocation packages to move out of the state.
North Carolina’s infamous “bathroom bill,” which forced public bathroom use to align with a person’s gender at birth, cost the state millions in revenue as a result of boycotts by organizers of sporting events, music concerts and business conventions. The law was revamped in 2017; however, North Carolina’s legislature seems tainted and remains the butt of jokes on late-night television.
No matter your politics as they relate to the NRA, it’s hard to argue against the business decision made by Delta. What’s not so easy to understand is why a political party would try to penalize a company for that business decision.
Carter is not surprised. “This is the party who wants to stay out of the way of business?” he asked. “It just makes you shake your head. This is the crazy world we live in.”
For the business world and for the politicians, it does seem like the brave kids at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have started something special. These kids have shown in a very short period of time that you don’t have to vote to have a voice. I have a feeling companies that stand up for what they believe is right will ultimately reap what they sow.
Hartsfield-Jackson is the world’s busiest airport and Delta by far its largest tenant. Delta certainly isn’t going to leave Atlanta, but at the same time the NRA and Lt. Gov. Cagle should think twice before flaunting the power they wield. Guess who holds the most cards?
Additional info: Jason Carter is a partner at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore LLP, an Atlanta law firm in specializing in complex corporate business litigation. He is the grandson of former President Jimmy Carter.