Transportation & Logistics

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March Madness Airline Congestion Means No Air Around Team Travel

18 Mar, 2015

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
New Policies, Schedules, Expected to Complicate Big Dance

Forget Cinderellas, seeding and snubs. March Madness is actually what the NCAA is experiencing as its officials try to navigate the mad scramble for airline tickets to tournament sites.

 An article in USA Today noted, “the first 48 hours following Selection Sunday are always among the most hectic for the NCAA's travel office, which has to figure out how to get basketball teams to a variety of men's and women's tournament sites across the country on extremely short notice.”

"The people that run our travel department are our heroes," said Mark Lewis, the NCAA's vice president for championships. "They're miracle workers to pull this off every time."

Not much about the tournament is easy to schedule, particularly at the outset. With teams changing daily, arrangements have to be meticulously planned – but ready to change – well, pardon the pun but on the fly.

The equation is not in the NCAA’s favor since it’s not just the team that needs to travel but athletic officials, families, school administrators, cheerleaders and band members. That’s a substantial group for each school, and the sad fact is that there has been a drop in the availability of charter airplanes large enough to accommodate everyone.

According to USA Today, a combination of new FAA regulations requiring more crew rest, charter companies the NCAA previously used going out of business and commercial airline mergers have added to the challenge of making sure enough planes are available to transport 116 total teams (not including 16 women's teams that will host first-round sites). Most teams began travel on March 17 and 18.

Although the NCAA does retain a dozen or so charter planes (which see non-stop action throughout the tournament), commercial airlines are often used as well. Unfortunately, like everything else associated with the big dance, those arrangements have to wait until the last minute. Only after brackets are revealed can airlines see if they are going to have a plane near a specific campus when a flight is needed (and it has to be at a time when that plane is not expected to be in use).

That’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and ‘whens’ – too many for officials to be comfortable at any time, but even less so now that American Airlines and US Air have merged, as have AirTran and Southwest. The combination of many routes means fewer planes available.

USA Today noted, “In January, the NCAA sent a memo to every Division I athletics director and head basketball coach explaining the predicament, calling the lack of charter availability in 2014 "the worst the NCAA has experienced in the last 15 years" and outlining some adjustments in how teams will travel to and from the tournament.”

In addition, the NCAA is coping with a new travel policy. That policy was designed to alleviate problems with March transport, but it may present another logistical hurdle for the organization’s travel planners.

According to an Associated Press story published on Indianapolis’ 19 Action News Site, the NCAA spent the 2014 tournament hearing complaints about problems with late night flights and more. This year, most teams in the men's tournament will be required to stay overnight after their games.

Previously, most losing teams flew home the same night, which sometimes led to red-eye flights – and subsequently, to problems. Case in point: In 2014, New Mexico State and San Diego State played a second-round game in Spokane, Washington, with the understanding that the loser would fly home immediately afterward. Unfortunately, that game started late after the previous one went into overtime – and the Aggies and Aztecs also went into overtime. By the time New Mexico’s contingent got to the airport, it was 1 a.m. The flight departed an hour or so later, and arrived in El Paso, Texas, around 7 a.m. – only to find out that one bus (rather than the necessary two) had arrived. Players, coaches and some others were driven to Las Cruces, New Mexico, on that bus while the rest waited for the vehicle to return following a 2 1/2-hour round trip.

Quite a bit of March madness was directed at the NCAA as a result.

Under the NCAA’s new guidelines, any team with a flight and a starting time after 3 p.m. locally must stay in town. Any team within a 350-mile radius of the host city that traveled by bus will have the option of driving back immediately after a loss.

While officials largely approve the change, some are denigrating it, pointing to the increased out-of-class time for student athletes. (The counter-argument, however, is that students taking red-eye flights back to campus, such as those in the case of last year’s Aggies/Aztecs debacle, weren’t going to be in any shape to attend classes upon arrival anyway).

A new set of travel policies, however, is only one stumbling block the NCAA is facing. The women's tournament has undergone scheduling changes as well. AP noted there will be more overlap between the two headline tournaments. The NCAA, still coping with the challenge of moving more student athlete contingents with fewer planes, flew some women's teams to their sites as early as Tuesday night, less than 36 hours after the bracket was released.

USA Today noted that women's teams who were playing in games on March 20 and who typically would have traveled two days earlier were being asked to take flights as late as 10 p.m. and would be reimbursed for the extra per diem if they wanted to leave on March 17. The goal, NCAA noted, was to try to alleviate congestion on March 18, peak travel day for both tournaments.

Of course, there are other options as well. One suggestion was to change the schedule of NCAA women's basketball for the future so that these athletes have a better showcase for their talent rather than competing with the men for facilities, air time and attention. Bonus round: It would take some of the burden off NCAA travel planners who are currently trying to juggle two tournaments.

There are plenty of other factors complicating the travel issue, and these are unrelated to the NCAA. Mid-March through early April is spring break on many campuses, increasing demands on airlines in areas near colleges. It is cruise season, and yes, spring tournament season for other travel sports teams. In short, it is a busy time of year, travel-wise. And since winter has yet to loosen its grip on many areas of the country, weather can still delay flights – something NCAA officials are desperately hoping they don’t have to face.

For now, they are maintaining an optimistic outlook.

"We're confident we have enough resources and a good plan," Mark Lewis said to USA Today. "There's not a lot of margin for error, but we're confident."

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