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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

WNBA’s Transition to Charter Flights Has Bumpy Takeoff

  • Not all teams are chartering to their season opener, and communication has been spotty.
  • Players are happy with the decision but question some of the ways it’s been handled.
Candice Ward-USA TODAY Sports

The WNBA’s transition from commercial to charter flights has begun with some turbulence. 

While teams such as the Indiana Fever and Minnesota Lynx flew private to their season openers in Connecticut and Seattle, respectively, multiple teams remain in the dark as to their own travel schedules in regard to charters with the league kicking off its 28th season on Tuesday. The news was first reported by reported by ESPN. Additionally, teams who are currently chartering, such as the Fever and Lynx, aren’t sure when they will do so again. 

Cathy Engelbert, the league’s commissioner, announced the transition to chartering a week before the season started, which came as both a celebration and a surprise to players around the league. The decision to fly commercial instead of charter has long been contested by the players. In 2022, New York Liberty owner Joe Tsai was fined $500,000 for chartering flights against league rules. Phoenix Mercury guard Sophie Cunningham, the team’s union representative, said there was no call with the WNBPA ahead of Engelbert’s decision, which raised questions about the previous feasibility of it. 

“We’ve been fighting for it for quite some time and the fact that it came out of nowhere proves that we have the money to do it,” Cunningham said last week. “We need to start treating us like the elite athletes that we are. We are grateful that it finally happened.”

Players took to social media to celebrate their first chartering trip. Fever guard Erica Wheeler posted a quick tour of the team’s plane on Instagram ahead of their trip to Connecticut. 

The league’s decision to charter will cost $25 million per year over the next two seasons, the league says. Previously, the WNBA allowed teams to fly charter only in the playoffs and for back-to-backs. 

Terri Jackson, the executive director of the WNBPA, told ESPN that while it’s been a rocky transition so far, it’s preferable to not chartering at all. 

“It’s a good problem to have because we got here and we’re talking about charter travel,” Jackson said. “Now, in this moment, the league has found its pathway to yes. It just seems that the pathway has a few more bumps than perhaps were needed.”

When the chartering decision became official, Engelbert said the transition would take place over the course of the season and not all at once. The opening-day travel itinerary reflects that. According to ESPN, the Liberty bused down to Washington, D.C., for their matchup against the Mystics, and will fly commercially to Indiana for Thursday’s game against the Fever. The Chicago Sky and Atlanta Dream both flew commercial to Dallas and Los Angeles, respectively. The Mercury are scheduled to make the short trip from Phoenix to Las Vegas, though it’s unclear how they’re getting there after mainly using public charters during the 2023 season due to security concerns surrounding Brittney Griner, who was playing her first season after being imprisoned in Russia. 

For now, players will continue to celebrate the decision while grappling with its growing pains. The lack of communication from the league prevents teams from altering previously made travel plans, which could result in a lot of wasted money that may have to be refunded. 

Liberty star Breanna Stewart, who is also a vice president on the WNBPA’s executive committee, weighed in on a possible solution for teams until the league figures it out. 

“2 out of 5 WNBA teams traveling today are on WNBA charters – and that’s a win,” Stewart wrote. “It could be a bigger one if the W allowed teams who were not offered League charters to secure their own until a full 12 team solution is ready.”

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