Facing Charter Shortage, College Football Reconsiders the BusBy , , and
Legacy carriers can make more from commercial flights
College teams rely on charters to get to far-flung road games
East Carolina University joined the upstart American Athletic Conference three years ago, part of a frenzied league realignment across college sports. The Greenville, North Carolina, school was prepared for road games as far west as Dallas and as far north as Connecticut -- the Pirates, like most big-time athletic departments, regularly charter jets for their football and basketball teams.
Until now. Facing high travel demand, airlines are cutting back on the number of planes and crews available to charter, leaving colleges and some pro sports leagues scrambling. Jennifer Bulla, who manages travel for Ohio State, spent “a sleepless week” after United Airlines canceled its agreement to fly the Buckeyes in 2017 and 2018. (It has since reconsidered.) Other teams are taking the bus to places they once flew.
American Airlines recently cut its number of National Football League charters to three from a reported nine. “It made more sense to make sure we were prioritizing the regular passenger operations,” American spokesman Joshua Freed said. “The best way to do that was to cut back a little on charter flying.”
Those changes don’t ease anyone’s anxiety at the college level. Greg Raiff, chief executive of charter operator Private Jet Services, says he’s fielding more calls from college coordinators like Smith: “They say, ‘Hey, if these airlines won’t fly the Miami Dolphins, what’s the chance they’re going to fly my college?’”
JetBlue, the Pirates’ preferred carrier, told ECU its charters were no longer available. In 2017, when ECU travels an average of 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) for its road football games, the team will pay $430,000 to fly Allegiant Air. After that, the Pirates’ travel coordinator isn’t sure what’s going to happen.
“We’re not worried about the money -- it’s the availability,” Terrell Smith said. ” I’m worried like hell right now about next year.”
Doug McGraw, a JetBlue spokesman, said the airline continues to operate some charter flights but is “focused on deploying our aircraft to meet demands for scheduled service.”
Moving a football team around the country isn’t easy. Including players, coaches and staff, the contingent can number 150 or more, requiring a medium-range jet like Boeing’s 737. Teams generally fly out Friday, return after the game on Saturday, and often want the plane to sit idle in between.
Letting a plane that size sit on the tarmac was acceptable to the airlines until they began limiting the number of seats available in an effort to boost fares. With ticket prices now going up, the carriers can make far more money putting those 737s into continuous service.
“We’re seeing less and less supply,” said Tom McMillen, a former congressman and president of the Lead1 Association, which represents athletic directors in college football’s top tier. “But there’s more demand because the conference realignments have resulted in spread-out scheduling.”
West Virginia University, which moved to the Big 12 Conference in 2012, is now 850 miles from Iowa State, its closest league rival. ECU’s four conference road games this upcoming season are at Central Florida (650 miles), Houston (1,300 miles), UConn (650 miles) and Memphis (850 miles). If the team has to make those trips by bus, it’ll mean the players lose an extra day of class.
Those who can travel by bus are likely to do so more often. Illinois’s football team will take a four-hour bus trip to play at Iowa this year, in lieu of the 26-minute charter they’ve taken in the past. They’ll probably bus to Wisconsin next year, according to Tim Knox, who handles the team’s travel.
When Illinois last put out its bids for a charter partner, none of the major airlines were interested. No JetBlue, no United, and no Delta. “At the end of the day, they just don’t need us anymore,” Knox said.
Some schools might find a solution with Southwest Airlines Co., the lone major carrier that’s expanding its college charter business. “You have to assume they’re struggling to find lift now that whoever their provider was has decided not to do it this season,” Director of Charters Bert Craus said. “I’ve noticed more teams are out there than normal.”
Southwest has also fielded calls from NFL teams looking for charter flights. Craus can’t do much for them -- Southwest’s 737s don’t have first-class seats and can’t serve hot meals, a deal-breaker for the pros.