Changes in the airline industry -- particularly the declining availability of charter flights -- will affect NCAA championships travel in 2015 and beyond.
From company mergers to new Federal Aviation Administration regulations, the combination of factors is expected to decrease the availability of chartered flights and increase the logistical challenges of moving thousands of student-athletes, coaches and administrators to and from championships sites.
To prepare NCAA member colleges and universities for the changes, NCAA championships and travel staff briefed the Division I Championships Cabinet in September about how the changes in air travel are expected to impact championships. Conversations with conference commissioners and others in the NCAA membership continued throughout Fall 2014 to inform them about the challenges.
“Arranging travel on this large scale is always a logistical puzzle, and it is made even harder by the challenges and changes facing the airline industry right now,” said Mark Lewis, NCAA executive vice president for championships and alliances. “Even with these limitations, we are working to ensure student-athletes, coaches and everyone else traveling with a team has the best championship experience possible.”
Changes for the 2015 Division I Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships include adjusted departure and return travel times for teams depending on when they compete and whether they advance, and the use of what’s known in the aviation industry as remain-overnight aircraft.
Dan Gavitt, vice president of men’s basketball championships, and Anucha Browne, vice president of women’s basketball championships, sent a memo to all Division I head basketball coaches and athletics directors this week with specific details.
The factors in the airline industry that will affect travel to NCAA championships are many, Lewis said. For example, airline mergers and resulting fleet reductions have made regularly scheduled commercial flights more profitable than setting aside aircraft for the charters that the NCAA would ordinarily use for championships events.
At the same time, several airlines recently either ceased operations altogether or stopped operating charters. Airline companies such as Vision, North American and World are now out of business. Allegiant suspended its charter business as a result of crew issues and is focusing on its scheduled service operations.
The lack of available seats on commercial airline flights also is an ongoing issue that has made scheduling travel tougher overall. In meetings with Southwest and Delta airlines, Lewis added, NCAA travel staff was told the airlines’ top priority for the foreseeable future is scheduled commercial travel.
Flight crew regulations introduced by the FAA last year also affect air travel. A crew member pilot is now required to have 1,500 hours of flying time in order to operate commercial flights, an increase from the previous level of 250 hours. Additionally, pilots must have 10 hours of rest between shifts and 30 hours of uninterrupted rest each week, which is a 25 percent increase over previous requirements.
These regulations directly impact travel operations, Lewis said. Carriers that were able to operate three flights per day with a single aircraft in previous years now can operate only two flights per day.
One solution that will be utilized this year is the use of remain-overnight aircraft. From past experience, charter availability for aircraft that fly regularly scheduled commercial service is at its lowest Monday through Friday, especially during normal business hours. More aircraft start to become available after 6 p.m. local time, with most becoming available after 8 p.m. when they are positioned for commercial duty the next day. As an example, Southwest Airlines has said that it has 700 planes available for charter after 8 p.m.
Gavitt and Browne stress that the NCAA has explored every option and is making every effort to address the impact on charter travel caused by transporting a large number of teams during the first several days of both Division I basketball championships.
“The notion that dozens of planes are available but are not being used due to cost is inaccurate,” Gavitt and Browne said in their memo. “Simply put, we use every available large aircraft (including some extremely expensive 747s) that meet our requirements for safety and operations. The reality is that in the early preliminary rounds of the tournaments teams will not be able to continue traveling the way they have been accustomed to in past years.”