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W.N.B.A. Adds Charter Flights for the Finals. Here Is Why That Matters.


Delay after delay. Then, a cancellation. Germy bathrooms. Wrestling with yourself over paying $4 for a small bag of Skittles. Forgetting your headphones and wanting to cry. Now, the power plug at your seat is not working, and the people sitting next to you on the airplane won’t stop coughing. Do they have Covid?

Anyone who flies often knows these pains, and W.N.B.A. players have to deal with all of this, too. W.N.B.A. players — they’re just like us, flying on commercial airlines. But why?

The league, founded in 1996 and in its 26th season, said there was a simple reason players weren’t permitted to fly by charter plane: Unlike the N.B.A. — a multibillion-dollar operation entering its 77th season that flies its players by charter — the W.N.B.A. said there wasn’t enough money to pay for it. W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert has said it would cost more than $20 million to fly all of its 12 teams by charter instead of on commercial airlines for a full season.

“We’re hoping in a few years, as we get more viewers to the game, we get more sponsors, we get better media deals, that that would be something we could afford,” Engelbert said in a recent interview. But she also said that she wouldn’t “jeopardize the financial health of the league” to fly players by charter.

To better understand, it’s important to know how players travel while on W.N.B.A. business. The terms of the collective-bargaining agreement state that teams are allowed to book players in premium economy seating “or similar enhanced coach fare.” While a handful of U.S. airlines offer true premium economy seats, they’re primarily available on international flights and include perks like amenity kits that are not offered on domestic routes. On domestic routes, carriers including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines do offer seats with extra legroom.

JetBlue and the so-called Big 3 airlines — American, United and Delta — offer business or first-class lie-flat seats on some transcontinental routes. Some, like American, offer lie-flat products — seats that recline into a full bed — on shorter routes, such as New York to Miami. And on American flights longer than 900 miles, premium passengers receive an in-flight meal.

The W.N.B.A.’s travel policy raises questions about the players’ fitness for game days and the impact that travel can have on the body. But the cost for these premium products can be steep. Travelers without enough miles — or a complimentary upgrade — can expect to pay, in some cases, hundreds of dollars or thousands of miles for a seat upgrade.

Some players, such as Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and Washington’s Natasha Cloud, have tweeted about the risks of flying commercial during the pandemic while trying not to catch the coronavirus, which would cause them to miss games.

However, it’s important to note that any form of travel — commercial or private — can lead to a positive coronavirus test. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still recommends that travelers wear a face mask on airplanes and in airports. And leagues that do fly their players by charter have not been spared from outbreaks. Virtually every major league has had players enter health and safety protocols. The N.H.L. had to pause its season in December amid an uptick in positive cases among players caused by the Omicron variant. The N.B.A. in December also postponed several games after an outbreak across the league.

With any commercial travel, there’s the risk of flight delays, cancellations and being rerouted or having to move around in-flight. But an uptick in summer travel and ongoing staffing shortages have made air travel more frustrating as the W.N.B.A. pushes through its season.

More than 6,200 flights were delayed within, into or out of the United States on Sunday, and more than 2,000 flights were canceled altogether, according to the website FlightAware.com, which tracks airline delays and cancellations. And unlike with charter jets, which frequently are nonstop, W.N.B.A. players may need to connect at other airports before reaching their final destination.

In recent years, travel delays caused by layovers or flight cancellations have hampered the league. A 2018 game between the Las Vegas Aces and the Washington Mystics had to be forfeited after the Aces spent more than a day in transit delays to get to the game.

That travel stress, said Dr. Ida Bergstrom, an internal medicine doctor at Farragut Medical and Travel Care, a travel health clinic in Washington, D.C., can be taxing on athletes expected to compete at high levels once they land.

“If you’re traveling for 24 to 36 hours for business and flights get delayed, or you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you’re expected to perform not only mentally but physically — that’s really tough,” she said.

And more travel is on the way: On Sunday, Engelbert said that the season would increase to 40 games next season from 36 this year. It’s part of an effort to generate more revenue for the league, which could help fund charters down the line. But in the meantime, the players will still be winding their way through airports, just like us.

“You, physically, are not going to be able to perform as well if you don’t have an opportunity to rest and regroup,” Dr. Bergstrom said.



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