WNBA to begin using charter flights on full-time basis this season once they can get the planes

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WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert told sports editors at a meeting in New York City on Tuesday that the league plans to begin using charter flights on a full-time basis this season as soon as possible. The program will cost about $25 million per year over the next two seasons. 

“We intend to fund a full-time charter for this season as soon as we can get planes in places,” Engelbert said.

Just last month, Engelbert announced the league would pay for charter flights for all playoff games and all back-to-back travel situations this season that required air travel. Still, the majority of flights were set to be commercial, as they have been for the league’s entire history. 

“No one wants [charters] more than I do for these players. We need to be in the right financial position,” Engelbert said before the 2024 WNBA Draft. “Just a few years ago we were surviving, now we’re going from survive to thrive. We want to do it at the appropriate time.”

The rapid decision to increase the use of charter flights comes amid surging interest in the league thanks to star-studded rookie class led by the likes of Caitlin Clark, Cameron Brink, Kamilla Cardoso and Angel Reese. 

“I am thrilled to see a significant change in policy that will permit and provide charter travel across all teams throughout the 2024 season and going forward,” WNBPA president Nneka Ogwumike told CBS Sports. “On behalf of the players, I express my appreciation and support for a bold move by the commissioner and team governors that in turn shows that they understand and value the health and safety of the players. It is time to be transformational. It’s time to bet on women.”

Travel has been a major topic around the league in recent years, with players pushing for better accommodations. As it stands, the league’s collective bargaining agreement does not allow teams to pay for charter flights on their own due to competitive balance rules. The New York Liberty and owners Joe and Clara Wu Tsai were handed a league-record fine of $500,000 for breaking those regulations during the 2021 season. 

Prior to last season, many players highlighted the issue with Brittney Griner set to return to the league after a 10-month detainment in Russia. New York Liberty star Breanna Stewart, who won MVP in 2023, even made it a key aspect of her free agency discussions with teams. 

“I would love to be part of a deal that helps subsidize charter travel for the entire WNBA,” Stewart wrote on social media in January 2022. “I would contribute my NIL, posts + production hrs to ensure we all travel in a way that prioritizes player health + safety, which ultimately results in a better product. Who’s with me?”

Early last season, Griner and her Phoenix Mercury teammates were harrassed at the Dallas Fort Worth International Airport during a road trip. Following that incident, Griner was permitted to fly charter for the remainder of the season in order to ensure her safety. 

While there were extenuating circumstances surrounding Griner, her situation highlighted the challenges that come with commercial travel for WNBA teams and players. They have to deal with cramped seats that aren’t built for their frames, lost luggage, delays and security concerns. 

“I’ve had guys come up and trash-talk me about how they could beat me one-on-one,” Las Vegas Aces guard Chelsea Gray told the Associated Press last year. “Usually people are nice, but you can’t be too careful nowadays.”

Back in 2018, the Aces refused to play a game against the Washington Mystics after a nightmare travel situation prevented them from arriving in Washington, D.C. until a few hours before tip-off. The league eventually ruled the game a forfeit and gave the Mystics the win. During the 2022 season, the Los Angeles Sparks were forced to sleep at the airport after their flight was delayed. 

“I don’t think we’re asking anything crazy,” Stewart told the AP. “We want to continue to be our best, and realizing that all the prehab and rehab and lifting and stuff we do for our bodies is just as equally important as the way that we travel and the ability to stretch our legs.”

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