NBA Players Get Roomier Chartered Jets as Delta Air Adds Teams

NBA players already get twice as much legroom as the average airline passenger, and soon they’ll be flying in bigger jets under a new charter deal.

Delta Air Lines Inc. is poised to start using Boeing 757s under a tentative agreement for National Basketball Association charters, with almost 50 percent more cabin space than the planes now on those flights. The accord also calls for ferrying as many as 27 of the 30 NBA teams, four more than last season.

The shifts are detailed in a letter to U.S. regulators from the league, and offer a rare glimpse into how the biggest NBA charter operator caters to its high-profile clients. While last season’s $65 million in NBA flying was a fraction of 1 percent of Delta’s sales, the business helps boost profit and showcases the carrier for an elite audience.

“It’s Delta’s way of keeping up with the proverbial Joneses,” said Greg Raiff, chief executive officer of charter operator Private Jet Services Group, whose clients include National Hockey League teams. “I’m sure the aircraft will have all new Wi-Fi and entertainment systems and in-seat power.”

Delta spokesman Anthony Black declined to comment on the NBA agreement, which will employ 11 of the airline’s Boeing Co. 757-200s after the carrier operated the service with eight Airbus Group SE A319s. The amenities already on the smaller Airbus planes hint at the pampering players receive during their months of travel.

Leather, Swivels

The A319s feature 54 leather business-class seats with as much as 5 feet (1.5 meters) of pitch, or the distance from a spot on one row to the same place on the next one. That’s about twice as much as the industry standard, and accommodates NBA basketballers who average 6 feet, 7 inches. The seats swivel, so players can twist to chat or play cards.

“These aren’t short guys,” said Bob Mann, a former American Airlines executive and president of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. “You do need a dedicated set of airplanes with athletic-sized pitch and athletic-sized other things.”

It’s also customary for sports stars to get extra attention on charters, with crews ready to provide a coach’s favorite drink or a player’s food preferences.

That’s luxurious by the standards of what a coach flier might experience between, say, Atlanta and Chicago, but Delta has fallen behind top-tier competitors in recent years, Raiff said. In tricking out the 757 model for NBA charters, Delta chose a plane that seats 180 people in normal service compared with 126 for the A319s.

Smallest Model

“The A319 that Delta has been using in the pro sports team airliner segment is the smallest of the VIP airliners in the space,” said Raiff, the charter operator. NBA squads usually fly with about 50 players, staff, reporters and guests.

Under Delta’s new charter accord, the airline would sell the 11 Boeings to an unidentified leasing company, which then would lease them to an NBA-controlled trust. Delta would still operate the jets and maintain them, and would be free to deploy them for other charters in any down time.

Delta’s Black and the NBA both declined to comment on the arrangement, which was outlined in a letter to the U.S. Transportation Department from an attorney for the league, Scott Flicker of Paul Hastings LLP. He also declined to discuss the deal. The agency approved an exemption sought by the NBA to let the plan go through, a June 23 filing shows.

The Miami Heat, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets are the only teams not covered by the agreement. The Heat and Rockets each use different charter companies, spokesmen said. Billionaire Mark Cuban’s Mavericks fly in their own 757.

Out of production since 2005, the 757 remains prized by airlines for its combination of size and range. It can fly as far as 3,400 miles (5,500 kilometers), according to Delta’s website, about 1,000 miles more than the A319.

Aside from the hoopsters, the stock market may welcome Delta’s move, said Mann, the consultant. If Delta puts 757s into charter service and places the smaller A319s back on regular trips, the number of seats for the public would decline. Investors and analysts generally like to see airlines restrict seat supply, because it can boost fares.

“You would think Wall Street would applaud that sort of thing,” Mann said.

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