As we move into spring and summer, the airlines are heading into some of the busiest charter work that they do: basketball tournaments and Major League Baseball. Charters are not the money-makers that they used to be, but they still turn a guaranteed profit for the airlines, and they are an important part of the business model.
College basketball can be among the most challenging, because it is so unpredictable. Nobody knows when a team is going to be eliminated or move on to the next round, so the schedule has to take that into account. Usually, when traveling by charter, the schedule is built to take in the best possible option, which is that the team in question will make the next round. If they lose, then they usually have to sit around for a day or two or three in order to return home on schedule.
If the team is lucky, the contract with the airline can include the flexibility to leave early if they lose, but this is entirely dependent on the airline and its ability to have a crew and an airplane in position, to say nothing of the catering that must be done according to the terms of the contract. Catering and food are a big part of these arrangements, so don’t underestimate their importance.
Baseball is much easier to predict, because the schedule is laid out in advance. That said, baseball charters can be demanding, difficult work because of the hours. Most charters (of any sport) include three total flights at a minimum: one to get the airplane into position, one to actually fly the team, and one to get the airplane back into the regular schedule. The fee charged covers all three, plus whatever crew-related expenses there will be. Most baseball (and football) teams negotiate with a single carrier, and they often use different-sized airplanes based on the trip, with long flights usually requiring a bigger airplane.
For the crew, the job begins with getting the airplane into position, usually by flying it empty to the pick-up point. This is the easy part, and also the most important. It’s also where the problems usually start, because if a game goes late—or really late—it messes up the schedule.
Let’s say a baseball game goes 12 or 13 innings—not common, but not unheard of. That can easily add an hour or more to the schedule. The standard post-game order of events doesn’t change: showers, press obligations, packing, et cetera. The team loads up on buses and heads to the airport. The airplane can be loaded fairly quickly, but being late is being late.
Since most games are played at night, the flight is usually a red-eye of sorts, so the big battle is fighting fatigue. But the job isn’t done. Dropping the team off is usually even quicker than loading them up. However, because charters usually start and stop at FBOs or company hangers, that means the airplane may have to be cleaned or fueled before it can go to the gate. Or, worse, it may have to be flown empty to another city to work a flight. As a pilot who has done these three-flights-in-a-night adventures, I’m here to tell you that the last ones aren’t a lot of fun.
More than once, I finished a basketball charter pulling into the gate as the crew working the first flight of the day was showing up. It was a mad dash to get the airplane ready to go as we slogged off to a hotel or grabbed a seat in the cabin to go home, another baseball team or university (hopefully) grateful to us for a job well done.—Chip Wright