Layover, cramped seating, security lines: A day with players on a WNBA commercial flight
July 5, 2023 By Doug Feinberg, The Associated Press
Breanna Stewart knew where she wanted to go. Someone was in her way. During games, that’s not a problem for the WNBA MVP. While boarding a commercial flight, it’s a bit trickier.
On a recent connecting flight carrying the New York Liberty from Atlanta to Las Vegas, Stewart had to ask a man in the aisle seat to get up briefly so she could contort her 6-foot-4 frame through the row before settling in her window seat as the passengers in line behind her patiently waited. The man politely complied, perhaps unaware that one of the best players in the women’s game would be sharing his overhead bin space for the next four hours.
Such is how it works for WNBA players. When flying, they’re just like everybody else.
The Associated Press traveled last week with New York and got a firsthand look at the experience. During their cross-country trek, the Liberty won at Connecticut on Tuesday night, appeared to run out of gas in a lopsided blowout loss at Las Vegas on Thursday and beat Seattle 81-66 on Sunday after a couple of days off.
Stepping around people to get to her seat was part of a 13-hour day Wednesday for Stewart on the second leg of the road trip.
“It was an early day. Drop your bags off, get on the bus to go to the airport to transfer to Atlanta to get to Vegas,” Stewart told AP on a shuttle to Las Vegas baggage claim. “I’m tired.”
The long day began around 6:30 a.m. with Stewart dragging her luggage down to the hotel lobby in Connecticut. All of the Liberty’s 65 checked bags had to be catalogued and loaded on a bus from Uncasville to Hartford for the team’s 2,700-mile flight to Las Vegas — including a brief layover in Atlanta.
Stewart and her teammates don’t fly economy, but the seats are still tight.
Players are in comfort seats or economy-plus to ensure extra leg room, per the collective bargaining agreement. That helps, but taller players like Stewart and her 6-6 teammate Jonquel Jones still find themselves in tight spaces sometimes. Not to mention 6-10 Han Xu, who wasn’t on the road trip because she was playing with the Chinese national team in the Asia Cup.
Now they can upgrade to first class — on their own dimes.
“Those seats are cramped. I tried to get upgraded to first class to have more room but the flight was full,” said Jones, who had to duck to even get on the plane. “It’s by no means a great way for us to travel that way with a game on Tuesday and then another game Thursday.”
Stewart, a Diamond Medallion member on Delta, was upgraded to first class for the trip from Hartford to Atlanta because of her status on the airline. She wasn’t so fortunate on the second part of the trip — the four-plus hour flight from Atlanta to Las Vegas.
There are a few perks for players, but even some of those have a catch.
Once New York’s 33-person travel party got to Bradley Airport in Connecticut, it was a seamless process with the Liberty operations staff efficiently unloading the bus in less than 3 minutes. A Delta representative met them with all the bag tags and tickets.
With tickets in hand, players headed straight to security — but here’s the catch: Though most had either TSA precheck or Clear status, foreign-born players don’t have that option.
Jones, who is from the Bahamas, and Marine Johannes, who is French, usually have to go through regular security lines. Sometimes they get lucky, as the pair did Wednesday, when they were escorted through the priority line by a Delta representative.
The team spent about 50 minutes in the Connecticut airport waiting to board a flight to Atlanta. Bradley isn’t a very busy airport and all the players were able to relax — even Stewart, who won four national championships in college at nearby UConn. Players sat quietly by themselves, checking cell phones or listening to music while others chatted with teammates.
Their flights were on time despite thunderstorms wreaking havoc on air travel last week but if there had been any cancellations, New York had its usual backup plan.
The buses that transported the team from Mohegan Sun stayed at the Connecticut airport until the Liberty’s plane took off. Assistant general manager Ohemaa Nyanin said it’s a common practice, adding that if something had gone wrong the Liberty would have bused back to New York where there were more flight options.
After the 2 1/2-hour flight to Atlanta, there was a short layover for their connecting flight. Players went to grab a quick cup of coffee or some food for the longer leg of the trip.
It helped that the team didn’t have to traipse through the busy Atlanta airport for the connecting flight. It was only one gate over from the one where they landed.
Once the team finally arrived in Las Vegas nearly 12 hours after dropping their bags at that Connecticut hotel lobby, the players boarded a waiting bus while the staff headed for baggage claim to make sure all 65 bags made it to Nevada.
“We just let them be and do whatever they want,” coach Sandy Brondello said of plans for the players. “Some of them watch film, some of them just sleep.”
The wear-and-tear on players’ bodies is one reason they have lobbied for charter flights, with New York paying a hefty price for ignoring the travel restrictions. The Liberty received a WNBA-record $500,000 fine last year for using chartered flights in 2021 during the second half of that season.
However, the league has eased its stance this season, allowing teams that have scheduled games on back-to-back nights to use charter flights. The league has said in the past it would cost about $25 million to charter for the entire season or approximately $2 million per team.
The WNBA also is allowing Mercury center Brittney Griner to use charter flights following her highly publicized arrest in Russia. She did travel commercially with the team last month and the 6-9 All-Star was harassed by a social media provocateur during an incident in Dallas.
The Liberty, like many WNBA teams, travel with security. During New York’s trip to Las Vegas, only one fan came up and asked for a photo with guard Sabrina Ionescu.
Players have become more guarded as their celebrity status continues to rise.
“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 said. “Usually people are nice, but you can’t be too careful nowadays.”
Stewart believes the Liberty organization is doing what it can to make travel as easy as possible for the players, but with the health and safety of players at risk, she thinks more needs to be done.
“I don’t think we’re asking anything crazy,” Stewart said. “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.”
She added players have to “make sure we’re not getting swollen from flying because that is a thing.”
One consolation for the Liberty: This was their only road trip with a connecting flight.
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