WNBA Finals short turnarounds, cross-country travel show importance of charter flights

LAS VEGAS — It’s wheels up to Uncasville, Connecticut, as the WNBA Finals shift all the way across the country for Game 3 and a potential Game 4. And in a notable first, the Connecticut Sun and Las Vegas Aces will do it via charter flights.

Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced at her 2022 All-Star address the league would provide charters throughout the Finals, something it had not done other than in unique situations. Teams fly commercially throughout the season and postseason, a constant nightmare and frustration that would have been ugly this week with such short turnarounds.

There is one day of rest between Tuesday's Game 2 in Las Vegas and Thursday's Game 3 in Connecticut and 2,659 miles separating the two arenas. Complicating matters, the Sun don't play in a city with an airport and the closest large hub is Boston, a nearly two-hour drive away. The Sun have already chartered twice this postseason, including one after their semifinal series went the full distance.

“It was huge for us, especially coming off Game 5,” Sun forward DeWanna Bonner told Yahoo Sports. “[The Aces] were able to close their series out a little bit earlier than us, so to have a couple days to be [in Las Vegas] was nice.”

The issue of charter flights often gets wrapped up in privilege, but for professional athletes, it puts them in the best position to perform at the highest level for themselves, their teammates and fans.

“It makes a huge difference, especially for somebody who is tall like me,” Sun forward Jonquel Jones told Yahoo Sports. “Sometimes you get on planes and you’re so cramped, by the time you get off, your recovery is starting all over again. Knowing that we have the quick turnarounds with the games and being able to get a massage before that and still feeling the benefits of that getting off the plane is going to feel way better.”

There’s an ease to flying charter that isn’t there with commercial flights. Professional athletes have all the same headaches the everyday flier does and maybe even more given their height (Bonner is 6-foot-4 and Jones is 6-6) and recognizable status (the people love A’ja Wilson).

For those flying from Vegas to Connecticut to follow the series, there weren’t a ton of options. There were maybe one or two flights without layovers into Providence, Rhode Island, or Hartford, Connecticut. Each are between a 45-minute to an hour drive from the stadium. A scan on Monday showed one flight at 5:25 a.m. PT that landed in Providence at 3 p.m. ET. Most were early mornings to late-night arrivals. And then there’s adjusting to the time difference to consider.

Instead of dealing with a day on and off planes, the Sun and Aces flew out on separate charters immediately after Game 2.

“This way we get there at I don’t know, 6 a.m. their time and we get the day to sleep, rest and we get a full day in Connecticut to get another night of East Coast time,” Aces point guard Chelsea Gray said.

Rest and recovery were the big things every player Yahoo Sports talked to cited about the benefit of a charter. Anyone who has flown all day knows the exhaustion it carries. Imagine playing high-level basketball within 24 hours after months of a condensed schedule of airports and games.

"Right now, it's the end of the season," Aces guard Jackie Young, the 2022 Most Improved Player, told Yahoo Sports. "I think rest is the most important thing."

The Sun also benefited from a charter in the first round of the playoffs when both they and the Dallas Wings had trouble getting out of town on a three-day turnaround. The WNBA stepped in on short notice to get charters given the difficulty.

“I was impressed with how they were able to do that, honestly, in a couple hours to activate two charter flights,” Sun basketball operations coordinator Peter Feeney told Yahoo Sports.

Feeney deals with a travel agent to help book and re-book flights, but it still takes up a “good chunk” of his day to do that. It can also trigger other changes, like staying an extra night at a hotel on the road. The 2021 season was the most difficult, he said, but this year still had its challenges with cancellations and delays.

That first-round Game 3 was a “nightmare” he seems happy to avoid again. The Wings’ flight had already been canceled the night of the game and the Sun were booked for the morning. He was on his way to the Boston airport when it was canceled. That’s when the league stepped in, but not everyone in game operations could go along. Neither could the equipment. So he booked the rest the next day on two flights. One was a 6:55 a.m. takeoff, but the group was deplaned because of a maintenance issue.

“All of our [equipment] bags were on that flight, so we couldn’t have everyone go on that flight because we had to stay with the bags,” Feeney said.

They got in at around 1 p.m. local time and the team was unable to practice. That won’t be the case with pre-planned charters this week. The same short turnaround would be between Game 4 on Sunday and Game 5 on Tuesday, if necessary.

Commercial flights have created plenty of headaches for Feeney's counterparts around the league and players have taken the brunt of the impact. The Los Angeles Sparks had to sleep in the airport last month because of it and the Aces forfeited a game in 2018 against the Washington Mystics because of a rough travel day and late arrival in the District.

The league does not allow teams to charter flights as dictated in the 2020 collective bargaining agreement (CBA). It's viewed as a competitive advantage for a team to use them when others might not, even though team owners like the Aces' Mark Davis and New York Liberty's Joe Tsai are able and ready to do so. Tsai was fined a record $500,000 for using charter flights in the 2021 regular season.

It’s an issue Aces head coach Becky Hammon said over All-Star weekend is a “glaring issue” she would like to see “changed immediately.” Engelbert has said it would be great to use charters, but at a $20 million price point, it would “jeopardize the financial health of the league” at this time.

Providing charters for the Finals might not seem like much, but it’s a big step toward the continued growth of the WNBA and its financial coffers. Just like every pivotal play on the court this week, the little moments matter.