Delta Airlines Wants Court to Protect Its Right to Anonymous Speech

Back in February Delta revoked a flight discount for customers attending an NRA conference. A political firestorm followed. They tried to walk it back once they realized they were getting pushback from Georgia legislators.

They claimed they were really being non-political and said they were considering stopping doing business with all divisive groups. (Which was always unlikely.)

But Delta is very political. Delta takes stands on issues, usually whenever it benefits Delta. It’s no coincidence that they’ve just named the recently departed head of the FAA to their board.

If there’s one thing we know about Delta is they do not like competition. They lobbied against competition from Mideast airlines. They also don’t like US airlines getting access to gates in Atlanta, it’s no surprise the difficulties JetBlue has had there.

Delta especially doesn’t want a second airport to be built in Atlanta. They have a lock on the first airport, and a new airport could open Atlanta up to competition.

There’s been plans for a second airport since the 1970s when the city acquired about 10,000 acres in Paulding County (40 miles from the city) to build one. They still own the land. Allegiant, for one, has expressed interest in flying there should a single runway airport get built.

The new airport received FAA approvals in 2014 leaving only an environmental study in the way of final approval for commercial service that would justify building the facility.

We know that Atlanta has filed suit against building a second airport in order to protect Delta. And Delta required Atlanta to oppose a new airport as a condition of renewing their airport lease.

But Delta has never publicly admitted to funding the ‘neighborhood groups’ that oppose a second airport. And Delta has gone to court to prevent revealing that it funds those groups which sort of gives away the plot of where the funding comes from, doesn’t it? The airline claims a free speech right, because airlines are people too.

[Delta] has never publicly admitted to giving financial aid to residents who file lawsuits or to the grassroots efforts. And, this week, Delta filed a friend of the court brief weighing in on a legal effort to force an anti-commercialization group to reveal its funding source.

The anti-airport committee was formed by an attorney at a law firm that does work for Delta (and the attorney who formed it is now President Trump’s deputy White House counsel for ethics). The CEO of the committee has said publicly that he works for “a major airliner in Atlanta” to fight a new airport, although he now says he “misspoke” and that you shouldn’t believe him because he “was not under oath.”

Delta cites its first amendment right to remain anonymous,

Delta in its filing cited the 2010 Citizens United ruling that expanded free speech rights of corporations through campaign donations.

The filing says: “Delta has a First Amendment right to engage in political activity and to remain anonymous, just as any other member of myriad political action committees that shape our country’s politics.”

That’s probably correct, but by asserting their right to remain anonymous as a reason not to release who the funders are of the anti-airport project they are pretty much saying that granting the motion would reveal them as the funders. I’m not sure that’s the best lawyering.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Great analysis, and the last paragraph says it all. I’ve long wondered whether the inability of American cities to get air facilities built is determined not so much by costs and legal matters as by dominant carriers not wanting to face competition. The race to the bottom might not be so fast or so successful if there were a realistic chance that someone else could get into the game.

  2. Thanks for this excellent post. Yet another example of anti-competitive behavior in the U.S. airline industry.

  3. Buh bye Delta farewell
    Enjoy your new hub in Tijuana
    U won’t be missed
    Nor your sky pesos fr proram
    with the one way business class tickets to Sydney for 475 k in sky pesos

  4. Wikipedia is full of employees from politicians and, to some extent, companies who write (edit) articles. They gang up on normal people if those people write anything the politicians don’t like.

    Even the Southwest Airline flight 1380 article is sanitized by Southwest hacks.

  5. I’m honestly confused why delta is going through this fight to be anonymous. Maybe there is a better tax deduction? There are existing ways to go about this that’s 100% legal and anonymous that corporations have used for decades. They would have to spend boatloads for it to show up in a SEC disclosure.

  6. I think you’ve got it wrong. Parker is paying for the neighborhood groups as part of the reciprocal agreement with AA to keep competition out of fortress hubs.

  7. Isnt Peachtree-DeKalb Airport (already built and with Atlnta Chamblee train connection to the city) the best existing alternative to ATL and an incremental investment can produce a truly viable alternstove to ATL in a lot less time? It already has some commercial scheduled service? Why not focus on PDK and make it work as an alternative rather than paying significantly more to build something 40 miles away without existing infrastructure? Gary’s analysis is informative but is built on a what seems like a limited premise: there is only one way to increase choice for ATL customers and that is to build a new airport but to me it looks like the flying public could benefit sooner and in a more meaningful way if we consider all the options. Why not PDK?

    Roman (NYC)

  8. I really dislike Delta. Yes, they do indeed act in a non-competitive oligopolistic manner if they can get away with it.

    However, in this case, the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is owned by the City of Atlanta (Atlanta) . I took a quick look at the ATL 2017 financial statements. ATL does not receive funds from Atlanta’s general fund and no guarantee was in the financial statements (based on a word search). ATL receives its revenues from landing fees, property leases, parking and other Airport-specific revenue sources. Financing was primarily from municipal bond issuances. Total outstanding debt is $3.0 billion. This is $57.74 in debt per emplaned passenger in 2017. So what do you think happens to ATL’s fiscal viability if Delta (who represents 17.3% of ATL’s 2017 revenues) decide to fly elsewhere. Most likely, it tanks and the taxpayers would have step in (not good). Seriously, Delta has ATL and the Atlanta City Council by the short hairs if you know what I mean.

    I am really doubtful that an ethical Hillary person or a change in the Citizen’s United ruling would alter that basic dynamic.

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