Cathy Engelbert at WNBA Draft '24
Cathy Engelbert at WNBA Draft '24

WNBA Charter Flights are Here to Stay

Ahead of one of the most anticipated WNBA regular seasons, the league is giving players something they have lobbied for years for—full-time chartered flights. This mandate is a culmination of the hard work of players, owners, fans and management and has been a long time coming.

Announced in a league-wide press release on May 9, the WNBA announced a full league-wide charter program to be phased in beginning with the start of the 2024 regular season. The program will primarily be operated by preeminent sports charterer Delta Air Lines. 

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert wrote in the statement: “We are thrilled to announce the launch of a full charter program as soon as practical for the 2024 and 2025 seasons, a testament to the continued growth of the WNBA. We have been hard at work to transform the business and build a sustainable economic model to support charter flights for the long term. While we still have a lot of work to do to continue to execute our strategic plan, we feel confident that the time is now to institute a full charter program to demonstrate our commitment to leading with a player-first agenda.”

On May 7, Engelbert also stated that the program should cost around $25 million a year for the following two seasons. 

Charter flights have been a discussed topic for years, especially given that the practice is standard across men’s professional sports leagues. While there isn’t an official start date for the flights mentioned in the release, the hope is that teams will be able to use the program right away, even with the regular season kicking off on May 14.

New Fans and Elevated Scrutiny

Last season, the WNBA spent $4 million on charter flights for the playoffs and any back-to-back games during the regular season. But this did not apply to any other regular season games, leading to longer security wait times, especially for international players, more security personnel and longer layovers.

The change comes after a continuously growing spotlight on the league, including a new group of rookies that broke multiple NCAA tournament records in college and have elevated to mainstream fame.

These college players have helped to bring in an even larger fanbase, with the WNBA preseason seeing record numbers and calls for streaming. In the Indiana Fever’s preseason game on May 9 against the Atlanta Dream, the Indiana Fever broadcast reported 13,028 fans were in attendance at Gainbridge Fieldhouse. The team only averaged a little more than 4,000 fans all last season. 

Because of this excitement surrounding women’s hoops that will only continue to rise, the league was most likely under higher scrutiny and pressure to get a deal done.

Better Late Than Never

Issues over commercial travel for WNBA teams has been an ongoing issue. For the New York Liberty in particular, this charter announcement was long hoped for.

During the latter half of the 2021 season, Liberty owners Clara Wu and Joe Tsai began paying for chartered flights for the team, which was against league rules. Under the CBA during that time, charter flights were banned in order to maintain competitive balance; some owners may have been willing and able to pay for them, but other owners could not. 

The Liberty were fined $500,000, which to this day is still the biggest fine in league history. 

According to Howard Megdal, formerly of Sports Illustrated, the Liberty had made a proposal for chartered flights to be the standard for all teams, but the plan did not go through because it wasn’t able to receive majority support. 

Part of a Larger WNBA Initiative

The topic of charter flights is part of the broader Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), set to expire after this season. As mentioned in the documentary “Shattered Glass: A WNBPA Story”, the WNBA Players Association protects and supports current players, and much of this is also fighting for their fair share and what they deserve to earn as professional athletes. While there are still other issues included in the CBA to discuss, including pensions for retired players, benefits for working moms and salary increases, charter flights are a big step in the right direction.

It is also interesting that charter flights are happening before the WNBPA has a chance to opt out of the old CBA after this season, meaning with the issue of flights already dealt with, it might open up new opportunities and flexibility for other negotiations. 

Past Commercial Flight Incidents

While charter flights will now better protect players, it took multiple disturbing incidents for things to change.

After Brittney Griner returned to the states after a terrifying 10-month detainment in Russia, threats and vitriol were common and no charter flights were provided for Griner or her Phoenix Mercury teammates. This resulted in an incident during the 2023 season where a conservative media reporter confronted Griner and badgered her with questions, and law enforcement was called, with the entire thing going viral on social media

Charter flights will also allow teams to use private air terminals and avoid layovers. There have also been multiple issues with delayed flights, and teams spending hours waiting for a plane to take off, not giving them adequate rest before suiting up for their next game. In 2022, former Los Angeles Sparks player Nneka Ogwumike revealed the team was forced to sleep overnight at the airport after their flight out of Washington D.C. was canceled.

And during this 2024 WNBA preseason, a video of Caitlin Clark and her teammates walking through the Dallas Airport with minimal security was posted online. Given a player like Clark coming into the league and prior negative experiences, it was time for a change to maximize their safety and performance. 

While the arrival of the news was a pleasant surprise to some, as many GMS and players came forward to say they weren’t informed of the deal prior to everyone else, it was still a cause for celebration.

Liberty Players React

Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones reacted to the initial flight announcement during a practice on May 7. Stewart is one of the Vice Presidents for the WNBPA and has continuously been an advocate for charter flights. 

“Understanding (it’s) player health and wellness but also player safety, and making sure that we can get from point A to point B and have the focus be our jobs and our team,” Stewart mentioned.

“We continue to add more games into the season and change the way the Commissioner’s Cup is being played this year, it just adds a little bit more travel into our schedules and stuff,” Jones said. “If we can try to find some kind of help with our recovery and, you know, just being able to get rest so that we can put our best product out there on the court.”

While the announcement of the deal was met with some skepticism, it is also something all 144 players and the coaches and general management can finally celebrate. After 28 years of the league, players and teams are finally receiving what they deserve. And as the league continues to grow and add more expansion teams, let’s hope that this continues to open up discussions on how beneficial it is to financially invest in female athletes.