Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

WNBA commissioner says charter flight program still has a few kinks but is running smoothly

A woman stands at a podium, talking into a microphone with an orange blurred background.
Patrick Semansky
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks at a news conference before Game 1 of basketball's WNBA Finals between the Connecticut Sun and the Washington Mystics, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, in Washington.

The WNBA's new charter flight program still has a few expected kinks but commissioner Cathy Engelbert expects everything to be running smoothly after the Olympic break.

“It’s a big Rubik’s Cube,” Engelbert told The Associated Press in a phone interview Friday. “Where could we get planes and pilots for long haul flights? It’s not like the plane takes you and waits there for two days. It’s been deployed elsewhere. There’s a logistical complexity.”

It usually takes months of work to put together a charter schedule for a professional league because of plane availability and pilot staffing. The WNBA was able to get it done in a few weeks, in large part because of a longstanding relationship with Delta and the blueprint the NBA has in place.

“The footprint of our season is so dense. We wanted to take advantage of the fact that we knew these first couple of weeks, especially on the front end of this, were going to be challenging for our teams,” Engelbert said. “That’s why we pulled the trigger when we did. We looked at the schedule and challenges it created and decided it was time.”

Engelbert said that the original plan was to roll out the charters gradually as they became available, but the league was able to secure charters for every team within a week of the season starting.

The league, which will pay about $25 million annually for the next two years for the flights, will use three types of planes for its charters — VIP, Delta mainline and regional jets.

So far, most of the flights have been done on regional jets because of aircraft availability. May, June and July are the busiest months for flying and other planes weren't available on such short notice.

The regional jets are smaller with 30 seats and have to stop to refuel on long flights. Fuel stops also were made when the NBA started its charter flight program in 1997.

Many of the planes also haven't had power outlets or WiFi — a problem that also occurs on commercial flights sometimes. Small inconveniences that definitely don't outweigh the positives of charter flights, which have been monumental.

“It happened overnight almost,” WNBA players’ union president Nneka Ogwumike said. “It was a little bit shaky on the rollout, but nevertheless for me I think it’s a huge win. The only word I can think about is transformational.”

No longer do players have to get up at 5 a.m. to get to the airport to fly to the next city for a game. Travel time has been nearly cut in half. They also don't have to deal with long security lines and cramped seats.

Last season, the AP traveled with New York on a trip from Connecticut to Las Vegas that took 13 hours to get between cities because of connecting flights.

“The fact is we can just pull up to the plane and get on the plane and get ready to go,” Liberty forward Breanna Stewart said. “We haven't done it yet, but to be able to finish a game and then fly out to the next city and not waste a whole day is huge.”

Players can do much needed recovery after games now on flights as they head to the next city.

Of the 120 flights that franchises will have to make in May and June, the league was able to get 116 of them at the team's preferred times to fly. That's allowed teams to practice at home and then fly on the road.

The league will track how many times a team flies on each of the charter options and those will balance out over time.

The Indiana Fever, for instance, took the first charter flight and it was on a VIP aircraft. That was only possible because the Indiana Pacers were in the playoffs and their charter was available to take the Fever to Connecticut.

The WNBA started paying for charter flights for teams that were playing back-to-back games last season. Coming into this season, they kept that program going before securing charter flights for every road game. Some teams, however, may have bigger planes or VIP ones because they are playing back-to-back games or are in the finals of the Commissioner’s Cup on June 25.

The Associated Press (“AP”) is the essential global news network, delivering fast, unbiased news from every corner of the world to all media platforms and formats. On any given day, more than half the world’s population sees news from the AP. Founded in 1846, the AP today is one of the largest and most trusted sources of independent newsgathering. The AP considers itself to be the backbone of the world’s information system, serving thousands of daily newspaper, radio, television, and online customers with coverage in text, photos, graphics, audio and video.