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Bill Torpy at Large: For Delta, the Fox sleeps with the fishes

Atlantans were aghast last week when the body of the beloved Fox Theatre was found in a car trunk, bound and gagged, a single shot to the back of the head.

Authorities believe this was a gangland hit meant to send a message to other nonprofits and corporations — and the community as a whole, for that matter — that no matter how beloved you are, you just don’t double cross the Delta Family.

The Fox Theatre, known for its Islamic mosque style, was whacked for playing footsie with a Middle East organization, the Qatar Family, who just like the Deltas are in the airline business.

When setting up a hit in “The Godfather,” Michael Corleone famously said, “It’s not personal; it’s strictly business.” Well, this one’s personal.

The flash point between the Fox and our local winged behemoth seemed innocent enough: the singer JLo played a party at the Fox, one that Qatar Airways put on to welcome itself to Atlanta.

Delta has been a big-time sponsor of the theater for decades and was, according to an airline muckety muck, “very surprised and disappointed” by the Fox’s dalliance with Qatar.

And now Atlanta knows that you neither surprise nor disappoint Delta.

I’ll add a legal disclaimer here because I want to stay out of a car trunk. Delta is not a Mafia-style organization. But it is pretty darn ruthless — in a thriving, big corporation, American free(ish)-market kind of way. It has strong-armed vendors, partners, the city and even its customers for years and it all has paid off. A decade ago, the airline was wheezing in bankruptcy. Last year, it made $4.5 billion profit, even as customers grumble about getting squeezed into sardine-can sized seats.

Delta employs 27,000 Georgians and is ubiquitous in Atlanta. In fact, Mayor Kasim Reed got a little verklempt recently when saying farewell to Delta’s CEO Richard Anderson, who was retiring.

The unpleasantries with Qatar go back to a business feud — no, a vendetta — between Delta and Qatar Airways in which the hometown team accuses its Mideast rival of being propped up by its oil-rich nation-state, giving it an unfair advantage in running its routes.

Qatar is a tiny appendage of land off of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf. I had to look it up on a map.

For the past year, the reading public has been entertained by an old-fashioned donnybrook rarely seen in these days of faceless, boring corporations. The feuding organizations were led by strong-willed, charismatic fellows: Delta by Anderson, the exec who made Hizzoner sniffle, and Qatar Air by CEO Akbar Al Baker, who enjoyed going toe to toe with with Anderson.

Last year, Anderson was responding to an argument made by Mideastern airline execs that U.S. airlines benefited from bankruptcy restructuring and government bailouts.

Anderson noted it was “a great irony” to have the Mideast business types complain like that given that the 9/11 terror attacks, which rocked the industry, came from their neighborhood.

After that, it was on. Al Baker, a pinched-face fellow with a love for a stinging taunt, brought his A-game to the squabble.

In March 2015, Al Baker said, “We don’t fly crap airplanes that are 35 years old,” a barb aimed at Delta.

The AJC fact-checked and found just four of Delta’s 1,200 planes are older than 30, rating the statement mostly manure.

Later, the Qatar CEO spoke about his rival saying: “Let him come face to face with me in any forum. I will hang him on a wall.”

Perhaps there’s a cultural breakdown in the meaning, but the tough-as-nails Anderson was absolutely weirded out by the imagery. I mean, how does one executive go about hanging another on a wall? And does it hurt?

Last week, Qatar Airways held a press conference to announce Atlanta-to-Doha nonstop flights starting June 1 and then headed to the Fox to party.

Delta got wind of this and decided to end its fellowship with the Fox.

Delta’s legal officer Peter Carter expressed vintage passive/aggressiveness: “We felt that, you know, a real friend would have contacted us and had a conversation with us, and so we thought it was time for us to re-evaluate that relationship.”

Officials of the beloved Fox were dumbstruck. I would suggest they hire a full-time Feud Tracker, someone to monitor the mortal enemies of the theater’s sponsors.

Gary Leff, who writes the airline blog View From the Wing, wrote an article headlined, “This may be the pettiest thing Delta has ever done.”

That depends what side you’re on. The hundreds of commenters on the AJC website seemed pretty split between Delta and the Fox. Leff said the dispute “is a proxy for some larger issues, like trade policy.”

Many people like the fact that Delta is acting strongly, no pussy footing around here. Others think the airline is acting like a spurned sixth-grader.

Whatever the case, one thing’s clear: don’t mess with Delta. Or else.

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