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 WNBA players have to deal with all of this, too. WNBA 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 allowed to fly by charter plane: Unlike the NBA — a multibillion-dollar operation entering its 77th season that flies its players by charter — the WNBA said there was not enough money to pay for it. WNBA 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.
The WNBA’s finances are more precarious than those of other leagues, but it recently raised $75 million from investors such as Nike and Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state. Still, that’s a drop in the bucket compared to leagues like the NHL, which was projected to bring in $5 billion in revenue. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said his league had more than $10 billion in revenue for the 2021-22 season. The WNBA has declined to disclose its annual revenue.
Before the WNBA All-Star Game on Sunday, Engelbert announced that the league would cover charter flights for teams during the finals. The league has occasionally covered charter travel for teams on tight schedules during the playoffs, but its collective-bargaining agreement with the players’ union prohibits teams from chartering flights themselves. The WNBA fined the Liberty $500,000 for secretly traveling to several games by charter last season.
WNBA players have publicly alluded to how their travel affects their preparedness for game day. But what can frequent commercial travel do to the body?
To better understand, it is important to know how players travel while on WNBA 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 US 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.
For a player headed to, or from, a game, Delta and American’s seats with extra legroom can be a golden ticket. These tickets often offer a more comfortable flying experience than economy: more legroom, a seat closer to the exit and complimentary drinks and snacks.
For instance, American Airlines flies its Boeing 787-800 jet — a wide-body plane with more than 230 seats — between cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. American offers premium economy seats with pitch — the distance between a seat and the same point on the seat in front of it — of 38 inches and main-cabin extra seats with pitches between 35 and 36 inches. In comparison, main-cabin seats on the 787 have just 31 inches of pitch. On a United Airlines flight between, say, Newark and Seattle, a route that operates a Boeing 737-900 jet, an Economy Plus traveler can expect between three and four more inches of legroom than a regular economy traveler.
Players can upgrade their seats on their own, but they are on the hook for the difference in cost or airline miles. Los Angeles Sparks center Liz Cambage, who is 6-foot-9, slammed the league on Twitter for its upgrade policy in February, saying, “Yall think imma spend another season upgrading my seat on a flight to get to games out of my own pocket.”
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 WNBA’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.
Such prices can be prohibitive for average WNBA players, whose minimum salaries start at around $60,000 for the 2022 season.
“The union asked for certain things,” Engelbert said, “and the players asked for more pay.” They didn’t ask for first-class or charter travel. They asked for more pay.”
Earlier this year, Terri Jackson, the executive director of the players’ union, said the players had many goals going into contract negotiations and did not prioritize full-season charters, although they do hope to be able to travel that way eventually.
“We didn’t go into negotiations to break the bank,” she said. “We care too much about this league. But we want to be supported.”
Experts have also raised concerns about the impacts of commercial travel during the coronavirus pandemic.
A federal judge in mid-April struck down the federal mandate requiring face masks on public transportation, including trains and airports. Now, it’s up to individual travelers to decide. Air travel has nearly reached prepandemic figures, with more than 2 million travelers passing through airport security checkpoints each day, according to government figures. More than 2.4 million passengers passed through security checkpoints on Sunday — one of the busiest days since the beginning of the pandemic.
However, it is 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 fly their players by charter have not been spared from outbreaks. Virtually every major league has had players enter health and safety protocols. The NHL had to pause its season in December amid an uptick in positive cases among players caused by the Omicron variant. The NBA 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 WNBA 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 non-stop, WNBA 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, DC, 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.