Big 12 basketball teams are still big on aircraft charters

 - May 15, 2008, 8:06 AM

Before Big Eight basketball teams began competing in the newly formed Big 12 Conference in 1994, their longest league road trip was about 600 mi. And among the former Southwest Conference schools that now comprise the league’s southern division, it was only 400 mi to the farthest conference venue. Today, travel to play Big 12 games can range as much as 900 mi, and inter-conference contests may take cagers to both coasts, Hawaii and Alaska. The 12 schools play a total of nearly 300 times per season, and all are road trips for one team.

As with colleges and universities across America, air travel has become a necessity rather than an option, and in all cases is an item that is in the athletic department budget. In some cases, alumni furnish funds–and occasionally aircraft–to carry the teams.

But following the Jan. 27, 2001, crash of a Part 91 King Air 200 in Eastern Colorado that killed 10 Oklahoma State University Cowboy players and staff, most schools stepped back and examined their travel policies. The OSU campus was traumatized, but students and administration handled their grief by forming a campus task force dedicated to examining all modes of university travel to determine which one is best. The committee is composed of university administrators and the fathers of two people lost in the crash.

Texas Tech: ‘No props’

In direct response to the OSU accident, Texas Tech’s Board of Regents ruled that Tech students could not fly on prop aircraft while en route to school functions. A Tech spokesperson said that the rule formalized a procedure that was already in place, and that it was not meant to imply that prop-driven aircraft are unsafe.

As a matter of fact, Texas Tech’s Red Raiders still use a King Air 200 to transport assistant coaches and equipment to basketball games–but coach Bobby Knight and team members usually travel on Learjets. After the OSU accident, Baylor University officials reviewed the school’s travel policies and rechecked the operator’s records and insurance issues, and were satisfied their system was sound.

The University of Oklahoma Sooners travel almost exclusively by charter, said athletic trainer Alex Brown. They have a yearly contract with Flight Time and normally fly on a Convair 580, and the cost is between $15,000 and $20,000 per trip.

The Big 12 represents nearly one-fourth of the total area of the lower 48 states, and that means there are a lot of wide-open spaces. Each of the airports located near the schools can handle most large aircraft, but when teams have to fly commercially, it may involve a drive of 100 mi or more.

Kansas State’s Wildcats and the Kansas University Jayhawks are centrally located in the conference. Both schools make many conference basketball trips by bus because of the relatively short distances to the field houses in Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and Oklahoma.

But being centrally located has its drawbacks, too. The airport at Columbia, where the University of Missouri is located, has a 6,500-ft ILS runway that can handle most charter aircraft, but because of its mid-state location, the next suitable big airports are 125 mi away in St. Louis or Kansas City, Mo.

Missouri uses Flight Time for most of its charter operations, but it also books single trips with other operators. This year the team will make four trips in a 50-passenger regional jet, four in a Convair 580 and one in a DC-9, according to Peter Fields, associate athletic director of operations.

“We’ve used the airlines on only one leg of a trip this season, and that was over Christmas,” he explained. “Of course, when we play Kansas or some other school that’s relatively close, we take a bus.” The University of Missouri Tigers’ travel budget is about $225,000 for the men’s basketball program and $135,000 for the women’s team.

Kevin Hurley, assistant athletic director for basketball operations at Texas A&M, told AIN that so far the school’s Aggies have chartered aircraft only four times this season, and that the DC-9 they lease for $15,000 to $20,000 per trip is a cost-driven decision. When the team flies airlines, it’s out of George Bush Intercontinental (IAH), about 75 mi from the A&M campus in College Station.

Iowa State’s Cyclones put out bids for a yearly contract, and they are currently traveling in a 30-seat Embraer Brasilia turboprop leased from Aircraft Source.

The University of Colorado is the sole holdout on chartering, relying totally on commercial flights. “After the OSU incident, we made it the teams’ choice, and they felt better taking commercial flights,” said senior associate athletic director John Burianek.

The University of Colorado Buffaloes have used smaller aircraft in the past, operating
out of northwest Denver suburban Jefferson County Airport. When flying by airlines they must travel nearly 45 mi to DEN.

But 11 of the 12 schools in the conference continue to use charter aircraft, citing efficient time management as the principal reason. In addition, they have found that in most cases using jets has been more economical.

Ironically, John Burianek of the Colorado Buffaloes–the one team that flies only on airlines–gave the best justification for charter. “Commercial costs less, but the difference is in time,” he said. “If we use the airlines, we have to come and go by their schedule, and that sometimes means the team has to miss an extra day of classes.”