This is a story about the best kind of problem. It's the kind that just sort of goes away, without ever really having to do anything about it.

It's also about what happens when airlines go political--and how Delta Air Lines won a big rhetorical fight by doing something people today don't always think of as a winning strategy.

It begins in February, after 17 students were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. In response, Delta and other airlines announced they would no longer offer flight discounts to NRA members attending the NRA annual conference.

Cue the outrage. The NRA, one of the most effective U.S. lobbyists, kicked into gear. Ans Georgia politicians, where Delta is based, announced a plan to punish the airline in the pocketbook--by taking  away $40 million in state tax breaks on fuel.

A big problem for Delta

A Republican gubernatorial candidate in Georgia at the time, Brian Kemp, called Delta "corporate cowards," and suggested replacing Delta's tax break, by getting rid of the sales tax on guns and ammunition. 

It all looked like a big problem for Delta--a publicly traded company possibly losing millions, because of what seemed at its heart a political statement.

But then, Delta did something unusual.

It waited. It did nothing. Or at least, it apparently did nothing out of the ordinary.

And now here we are, roughly six months later, and Georgia politicians--Kemp among them--are falling over themselves to reinstate the tax breaks.

Delta is going to get what it wanted all along.

So what changed? Why was the wait-it-out strategy so successful?

'A strong political force'

Maybe look at the calendar. The whole controversy arose during the primary election season, when Georgia's Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Kemp, who is currently the Georgia secretary of state, were fighting hard for the GOP nomination for governor.

But that's over now; Kemp won the primary on July 24.

And afterward, the current governor, Nathan Deal (who faces term limits and can't run for reelection), announced he was suspending the fuel tax that affected Delta. As Greg Bluestein reports in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Instead of a fire-breathing response, [Kemp] praised Deal's "wise" decision.

"I support economic incentives that generate a sizable return on investment for Georgia taxpayers and create economic opportunities for communities throughout our state," said Kemp. "Based on the information provided, the governor's executive order aims to do both."

Hmmm. A complete 180.

'Hamilton' is a popular musical

As Kelly Yamanouchi, explains, somewhat deadpan, also in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the rationale might simply be that: "Delta is a strong political force at the State Capitol."

Yes, Delta is a strong political force in Georgia.

Also, Steph Curry is a pretty good basketball player. Elon Musk spends a lot of time on Twitter. Hamilton is a popular musical.

Delta isn't just any Georgia company. Its headquarters are at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. It's the biggest employer in Atlanta, and one of the biggest in the state. 

So sure, the NRA has a powerful lobby. But so do the airlines, and especially in the states where they have their headquarters.

A bias toward action

In teh end, everyone wins here, so to speak.

  • Delta gets its tax breaks, along with the support of whatever portion of its customers don't want it doing business with the NRA.
  • Kemp can keep campaigning on his support for gun rights, which are key to his base. 
  • Gov. Deal can focus for the rest of his term on the real day-to-day things that governors have to deal with, like keeping one of the state's most powerful employers and lobbyists happy.

Technically, I guess, the NRA doesn't win; although it got a lot of mileage out of the controversy. And the whole kerfuffle was made up to begin with, since the convention is long since over and only 13 people had taken advantage of the discount anyway.

The real winner: Everyone who learns the key lesson here. 

Entrepreneurs and other business leaders often have a bias toward action. It usually serves us well.

But sometimes, the best answer to a problem is to do nothing--or at least, nothing unusual.

Sometimes time really is on your side.

Published on: Aug 2, 2018
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