““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
How private aviation helps sports teams score
Brett Quigley had just finished a practice round for this year's Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National in Georgia when a little voice in his head prompted him to turn on his cellphone. He's awfully glad he did. Moments later, a friend called to tell Quigley to hurry home because his wife was going into labor. Luckily, Quigley had access to a chartered business jet, a Hawker 800XP operated by Talon Air of Farmingdale, N.Y. Talon, which had signed Quigley to a two-year sponsorship, hustled him to Jupiter, Fla., in 45 minutes, just in time to witness the birth of his first child.
Without the Hawker, "Quigley would never have made it back in time for his daughter's birth," said Adam Katz, Talon Air's founder and CEO. Katz added that flying privately continues to benefit Quigley because it lets him maximize his time earning money on the links and spend more nights and weekends home with his family.
The list of sports stars, teams and executives who use business aircraft to further their careers is long and growing. Tiger Woods is a long-time fractional shareowner at NetJets, Wayne Huizenga's Miami Dolphins travel on his Boeing 757 and the Dallas Mavericks fly on their owner Mark Cuban's 757. Countless auto-racing teams, meanwhile, zip around the U.S. 37 weeks each year in what the teams have dubbed the nascar Air Force. And Takeo Spikes, the Philadelphia Eagles linebacker who is known to his fans as TKO, has a sponsorship agreement with Atlanta-based FlightWorks and travels using its FlightPASS block-charter program.
For Spikes, business jet travel is all about convenience. "There have been several occasions where I've had appointments in two cities two hours [flying time] away from each other," he said, "and I've able to make both of those on time and well rested.
"[Once] you fly private, you want to fly private all the time," he added. "There are no delays; you don't have to wait on anybody and the plane leaves when you need to leave."
Last year, Spikes had to make a quick personal trip to California during football season, and he used the time aloft to work on a strategy session for an upcoming game, something that he said he would have been unable to do on an airline. "Even though I wasn't there with everyone [on the team]," he said, "I still was seeing what we needed to be seeing [on a video monitor]."
Flexibility Is Key
What makes business aviation so useful for athletes and their colleagues is not just that it is the means to avoid crowded airlines and public terminals, but smaller airplanes enable them to use many more airports than are available to airlines. The scheduling flexibility is also key, allowing athletes to travel when they need to, on short notice if necessary and without having to arrive at the airport two to three hours early.
When weather affects flight plans, business aircraft have a singular advantage, according to Bill Thornton, chief pilot for Morgan-McClure Motorsports in Abingdon, Va. When the Morgan-McClure Citation 560 flies Daytona 500 champion Ward Burton and team members to race their famed No. 4 Chevrolet in the Nextel Cup Series, weather delays don't cause the same problems as they do for airlines.
Airline passengers usually have to wait for their airplane to arrive from another location, and if weather causes delays anywhere in the system, flights may be held up for hours. "When we have a weather delay," said Thornton, "as soon as it clears we can leave."
Thornton spoke as he was preparing to fly from Virginia Highlands Airport in Abingdon to Elmira, N.Y., a 75-minute trip, scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. The team needed to be on the track at 6 a.m. the following morning for the Watkins Glen Road Race. "Today they're able to spend [all day] with their families at home," he said, "and they're able to get a good night's sleep." To do the same trip on the airlines would involve driving 22 miles to Tri-Cities Regional Airport near Bristol, Va., then connecting through Charlotte, N.C., or Cincinnati. "It would take six to eight hours," Thornton said.
The Industry Adapts
The business aviation industry has adapted to the needs of traveling athletes, and many airport fixed-base operations (FBOs) offer separate facilities for VIP customers. At Signature Flight Support's new FBO at Boston Logan International Airport, the VIP section features separate air- and street-side entrances and its own security screening equipment. Signature also has a separate VIP facility at Chicago O'Hare and is adding one in San Francisco. Landmark Aviation's Toronto FBO offers a separate terminal complex with its own office, lounge, concierge and storage hangar.
Wilson Air Center, with three FBOs-one at Houston's Hobby Airport, one in Memphis and the third at Charlotte/Douglas International in North Carolina-frequently hosts sports-related travelers and also offers separate VIP facilities. Vice president Dave Ivey had worked before at an FBO handling sports teams and, when he joined Wilson Air, saw an opportunity to serve that market.
While the Memphis location caters to college football and basketball teams, when Wilson Air opened an FBO at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, the universe of sports customers expanded quickly. Charlotte is the center of that universe for nascar teams, and on race weekends, traffic starts flowing on Thursdays, Ivey said. "Multiple private charters of Boeing 737s, 727s, 757s and others descend into Charlotte to transport team members and staff to truck, Busch Series and Nextel Cup races." During the racing season, Charlotte handles 500 to 600 passengers per week.
For Wilson Air, the extra business means not only fueling and parking the airplanes but also moving baggage and arranging parking for team members' vehicles in Wilson Air's large parking lot. The nascar teams also take advantage of Wilson Air's private terminal, which is separate from the facilities used by most corporate travelers. At Burke Lakefront Airport in Cleveland, Million Air's FBO also targets the sports business, attracting teams like the Miami Heat, traveling in a Boeing 727, and the Seattle Mariners in a 757. "We have an active sports team business," said Tom Slavin, Million Air Lakefront's president.
The advantage that Million Air Lakefront has is that the airport is large enough to handle the big Boeings and close enough to the local sports action to make traveling there worthwhile for athletes. To make it easier for all types of airplanes to use his FBO, Slavin has a variety of handling equipment available, including airstairs, belt loaders for baggage, de-icing equipment and air-start carts for starting jet engines. The FBO sees about 100 sports-related flights a year. Another advantage of Lakefront is that landing fees are much lower than at Cleveland-Hopkins International, which all the airlines use.
While Million Air doesn't have a separate VIP entrance, the FBO uses its hangar in poor weather for clearing customs and security screening; then it buses team members to their airplane. The FBO also has fixed and pan-tilt-zoom cameras connected to a sophisticated security system. Lighting around the buildings and ramp area is enhanced, too, because Slavin worries that an athlete might fall while exiting an airplane at night on unfamiliar airstairs. "It can happen," he said. "People stumble occasionally. We don't want one of these big palookas falling down the airstair and suing."
Many FBOs located near nascar tracks see big influxes of traffic during race weekends and specialize in serving race teams. Guardian Jet Center in Ontario, Calif., invites race team flight crew members to watch the race on a big-screen TV at the FBO. Alliance Aviation Services in Fort Worth sets up a temporary heliport next to the FBO ramp so team owners and racers can hop a quick ride to the nearby Texas Motor Speedway, avoiding the inevitable traffic jams. And SheltAir Aviation's Daytona Beach, Fla. FBO is one of the busiest ramps in the country during the annual Daytona 500 race.
It isn't just the airplane-owning teams and fractional-share companies that spur sports-related business aircraft travel; charter companies are in on the game as well.
When the soccer team Real Madrid had an urgent need for a rather large airplane, back when David Beckham was bending it for the Spanish team, London-based charter operator Air Partner got the call for a most unusual journey. Only six weeks before the planned start of Real Madrid's summer 2003 show match tour in China, Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand, sports division head Kevin Ducksbury got a call asking if it would be possible to locate an airplane large enough to carry the team on that mission.
In an extremely short time, Ducksbury and his Air Partner colleagues around the world were able to arrange to charter two Malaysia Airlines airplanes, an Airbus A330 and a Boeing 747. This included the added challenge of obtaining first-time-ever permission for a non-Chinese airline to fly passengers within China, according to Air Partner. The trip went beautifully, with the 24 soccer players wowing sell-out crowds in all four locations.
"Flexibility is the biggest benefit for the team," said Ngaire Duncan, director of commercial air charter sales for Air Partner. "You may have a team playing in a game and going into overtime. [An airline's] schedule isn't going to hold up for them." Or if a player gets injured, she said, "We can work around their schedule."
For sports teams, Air Partner not only supplies airplanes with seats large enough to accommodate bulky athletes but also video equipment that coaches use to prepare players for upcoming games or review just-played contests. "It's no longer lost time," said Duncan. "[The flight] becomes a productive event."
Athletes and team owners are a big part of the fractional-share business. "We have PGA Tour players, NFL players, team owners in major-league baseball and the National Football League and automobile racing people," said Patrick Gallagher, vice president of sales for Cleveland-based Flight Options.
For athletes with uncertain and frequently changing schedules, fractional shares offer an advantage over charter and even jet cards, he said, because of the shorter notification time a passenger must give to fly. Another benefit, Gallagher added, is that a shareowner can book two airplanes for a trip without having to pay a charter crew to be on standby or to fly an empty airplane for repositioning. An athlete who likes to travel with his or her family, for example, could use one airplane to get to the next event and send the family home on the other.
A fractional owner can also use different-size airplanes when necessary. Traveling alone, an athlete might need just a light jet, but with teammates or family, a larger aircraft will be required.
Back on Course
For Brett Quigley, the trip via Talon Air to witness his daughter's birth didn't mean he had to miss his first Master's Golf Tournament. Lily was born early Wednesday morning, April 4, and Quigley was able to return for the start of the tournament on Thursday, when he played all four rounds wearing his hospital ID bracelet and scored an eagle during his final round on the par-five 13th hole. "You can't put a price on that time with family," he said.
Sports agent Glenn Toby, who operates Infinite Sports Concepts in Atlanta, agrees with that assessment and often counsels his clients to fly on business aircraft. "It's extremely expensive," he said, "but the value exceeds the cost in terms of wear on the body, and you can relax."