Sports Team Schedule Consolidation – Viable Strategy or Gimmick?
“We’re mad as hell, and we’re not gonna to take it anymore!” Over-scheduling, lengthy delays, marginal service, there must be a better way. This is a common refrain among many sports team air charter clients. Is consolidating air charter schedules across multiple teams or conferences the answer? Or, is it a marketing ploy that will make matters worse, not better? We have had a lot of conversations lately with our athletic team travel clients concerning a recent proposal to do just that. This athletic association in question has proposed that by utilizing a single vendor (that they selected, regulatory and legal challenges to their authority to circumvent public purchasing laws aside) this will lower prices and improve service, resulting in a Golden Age of sports team travel. Could this be true? Or would it make the problems worse? In this blog we’ll break it all down for you.
How Did We End Up Here?
Following deregulation in the late 1970s through the early 2000s, airlines were a case study in mismanagement. Airline fleets were often too large, and the quest for market share came at the expense of profitability. Older fleets meant lower capital costs, the same reason people drive their Subaru for twenty years – it saves money! This made for larger fleets of older aircraft, creating quite a bit of idle aircraft inventory. Air charter was an easy and much-needed revenue pick-me-up for airlines, putting idle assets to work.
Private charter airlines had advantages during this same period. The low capital costs of aircraft compared to today’s modern birds, coupled with a less complex regulatory environment and less oversight (not a good thing, mind you) meant that charter airlines could pop up and chug along at a nice clip, flying under-served markets as well as on-demand ad-hoc air charters – including many sports teams.
Fast forward to today. Fleets are much younger, more advanced, and very expensive. A single new aircraft can price in the tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars. Airlines are well-oiled revenue machines that are disciplined about fleet size. When was the last time you were on a flight that wasn’t stuffed with passengers? Air travel ticket demand is at near record highs. Most airlines are operating their aircraft twelve hours per day or more, posting record profits along the way. Accordingly, the appetite for private air charter among scheduled service airlines has waned considerably. Look no further than professional football, where several teams have struggled mightily to solve the team transportation puzzle in recent years.
While several on-demand air charter-only airlines have tried to fill the charter availability gaps, many have been under-capitalized with very small fleets, resulting in ripples of schedule disruptions when a delay occurs. Many air charter operators have struggled without the tour operator anchor business of the 1980s and 90s, with under-served markets being more difficult / impossible to find. This creates pressure to pack as much air charter business, athletic team travel included, onto fewer aircraft. We have seen this trend in the athletic team air charter market for a number of years.
A Close Look at Consolidating Sports Team Travel
The prevailing theory goes that consolidating the travel schedules of multiple teams would create so much volume that pricing would fall, schedules would run smoothly, and all would be right with team travel. This claim is heavy on appeal but light on facts. It sounds great on paper, but let’s peel the onion back a bit, starting with collegiate football team travel utilizing private aircraft.
Most football teams want to depart on a Friday and return on Saturday night. In theory, you may be able to utilize the same aircraft for two teams to fly out to their games assuming one of them likes to depart before noon (student athlete travel rules notwithstanding). But what happens on the return when just about everyone wants to go home at around midnight? Who wants to be team number two and go home at 6 a.m., 7 a.m. or even 11 a.m. the next day? Oh, and don't forget that for consolidation to work there needs to be another team close by, unless you are okay with 10+ hour gaps between flights.
With two teams on one aircraft (remember, this is the centerpiece of consolidating team flying), the risk of delays or outright cancellations due to exceeding crew duty limits increases exponentially. What if after the schedules are announced and both teams have an afternoon game and are looking to depart for home at exactly the same time? What if the aircraft has a mechanical, or a weather event, or the first team went into overtime? It is one thing to recover to fly one team, what about a second team? Lastly, what if you want a different airline or aircraft type than the team that happens to fit in around your schedule? What if the other team is budget challenged, or wants a more expensive albeit superior option? One size does not fit all. The same holds true for basketball and other sports team travel.
Keep in mind that private air charter brokers and / or airlines have consolidated flying already to make team charter transportation as competitive as possible, lowering costs via schedule efficiency. The majority of teams are required to put their flying out to bid, resulting in very competitive offers. Further, airlines are always consolidating their schedules and trying to reduce empty non-revenue ferry flying for all their operations, not just the relatively small percentage that is athletic team travel. This is not the same as what is being proposed as of late; force teams to adjust their schedules and utilize a single vendor, creating essentially the same rigidity and inflexibility as scheduled service. The knock-on effect has always been over-scheduling, late flights, cancelled flights, and lots of disruptions. Sound familiar?
Nothing New Here
We have been arranging collegiate air charter travel for 20 years. This includes managing the private air charter operations of entire commercial airline fleets comprising hundreds of aircraft. We can tell you that building rigid schedules across multiple teams to drive down costs is a sucker’s bet. The schedule flexibility that you are paying for to charter in the first place is largely eliminated. Worse, your schedule now depends on the schedule of another team, or perhaps two teams. Who decides on when a flight can be changed? Who gets the early departure? Remember, these teams are competitors.
This is not to say that a team should expect to be the only flight of the day. On the contrary, aircraft and infrastructure are expensive and operating a safe and reliable airline is not cheap. Aircraft utilization must be maximized for operators to remain healthy and profitable – but not at the expense of the very reasons teams want to fly private – chief among them flexibility and convenience.
The Truth Probably Won’t Surprise You
While collegiate team “total annual charter spend” numbers in the hundreds of millions that have been bandied about lately, along with "thousands of flights annually" initially this may sound like a bulk purchase opportunity. Keep in mind that this "volume" is an average day or two of flights and revenue for a single U.S. airline. The consolidation play ignores the fact that once you factor in the tremendous variety of team aircraft and airline preferences, passenger counts and geographic reality, you start to see where the consolidation theory breaks down.
We analyzed several collegiate sports conferences across multiple seasons to determine the total flight hours for all teams assuming maximum consolidation. The volume just is not there after dividing the flight hours over a three or four month season, then spreading it out over the many different aircraft required to satisfy the diverse needs and preferences of each team.
The Price and Quality Relationship
Many private air charter brokers and air carriers alike are having honest conversations with clients about costs. It turns out that there are always quality options, but quite often they cost more. This was the case in air charter decades ago and it is still the case today. Air charter is not a commodity. There are vast differences between operator capabilities, aircraft, and air charter broker services. Box stores are cheap because they limit choice and rely on volume. The same is true in the charter industry. Better quality, more choices, flexibility, and service come at a cost. You get what you pay for!
If you want to improve a service that you purchase, change how you purchase it. Athletic associations would better serve their members by educating them to purchase on value, not lumping their air charter travel needs together and jamming them with a single vendor. To improve your charter purchasing, ask about fleet size and operational spares. Talk about what the recovery process will be from a delay instead of pretending delays don’t happen. What about incident and accident history? Payload capacity? Aircraft range and fuel burn? For air charter operators and air charter brokers alike, what about past performance? Reputation? DOT fines and investigations? Litigation? Insurance? Protection of funds? These are all metrics that matter, yet many purchasing departments make their selection based on the lowest price on the spreadsheet. That might work for buying staples and pens, not so much for private air charter transportation.
Does price matter? Of course, but it should be one metric among many when awarding team air charter travel. Aggressive scheduling of multiple charter clients with little to no margin for error will continue to cause cascades of delays and disruptions. This will ensure continued disappointment for teams that buy on price alone. If we are going to send the message to the market that price is king, the market will adjust with an even greater focus on squeezing costs lower, making service issues and delays worse, not better. Seldom does pricing and quality move in the same direction, especially in a market as dynamic as aviation. Let’s cure the quality problem by focusing on quality metrics and building relationships with private air charter brokers and operators that you can trust to guide you.
If You Skipped the Other Sections Here's the Scoop
We think that the latest team charter schedule consolidation hype is overblown and a bit disingenuous. The association in question lacks the authority to mandate the use of a sole vendor, especially given the fact that the majority of colleges and universities are legally obligated to adhere to state and federal regulations regarding fair and open competition. Think about this; who wins by bypassing the public purchase / open bid process by pitching a “Just give us all of your charter business and we’ll save you money.” scheme? Not the teams, that's for sure. Ask questions and get the facts. In the meantime we'll be helping teams make better buying choices, just like we have done for the past two decades.