How Do NFL Teams Fly?

Feb 3, 2018

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With Super Bowl LII looming, travelers from all over the US, and even the world, are flying into Minneapolis (MSP) to catch one of the world’s most watched events. Reigning champs the New England Patriots are facing the Philadelphia Eagles, who haven’t been to a championship game since 2005 — let alone ever won a Super Bowl ring. 

While the Patriots flew into Minneapolis-St. Paul airport in their newly purchased Boeing 767, the Eagles arrived in an American Airlines A330.

But how do other teams get around the country during regular season? With eight away games every year (plus pre-season matches), teams have to do a fair amount of traveling, most of which is in the air. Not surprisingly, NFL football teams do not fly commercial. They charter large airplanes — or, if they are the New England Patriots, just buy them outright. Here’s a look at who flies what.

Private Aircraft

The Patriots are the first team to own their own aircraft; they bought two used Boeing 767s in 2017. The 767-323ER shown below is an extended range version that can fly for 12 hours. The team doesn’t usually need it for that long since the longest they’d be in the air on a transcontinental flight is about 6 hours to Oakland or LA. It’s safe to say that the Pats bought their 767, which used to fly for American Airlines, for its large size and relatively cheap price on the used market.

10/03/2017 Warwick RI- New England Patriots take off in their new plane..Jonathan WiggsGlobe Staff Reporter:Topic.
10/03/2017 Warwick RI – New England Patriots take off in their new plane. Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff Reporter

The aircraft is outfitted with domestic first class recliner seats in a 2-3-2 and 2-2-2 configuration — each with its own entertainment system. Its home base is TF Green Airport in Providence, Rhode Island (PVD).

Charter

All other NFL teams travel by chartered aircraft. It allows teams to have the feeling of flying private without the costs of owning an airplane. Still, chartering jetliners can cost tens of thousands of dollars an hour, so it’s not exactly cheap.

The big three US airlines operated almost all NFL team flights up until recently. Last fall, both United and American dropped clients when they found they could make more money using the planes for regular commercial service. American ended its contracts with the Arizona Cardinals, Baltimore Ravens, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and the Pittsburgh Steelers, while United dropped the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions.

Right now, just three teams are flown by American: the Carolina Panthers, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. While American wouldn’t confirm what aircraft the teams are flown on, Philadelphia (PHL) and Charlotte (CLT) are both Airbus A330 bases, while Dallas (DFW) is a Boeing 777 and 767 location.

Delta said it carried 10 teams this year, although it only confirmed the names of the three it officially partners with: the Atlanta Falcons, Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks — with all three cities being Delta hubs. According to FlightAware, Delta used 767s, A330s and 757s for the Vikings and the Falcons.

Delta
A Delta A330. Image by Gietje/Wikimedia Commons.

Since 2000, Delta has carried 11 Super Bowl winners and told TPG that it’s the largest sports charter organization.

“In fact, we’ve carried so many winners that we’ve trademarked the tag, ‘Official Airline of Champions,'” Delta said in an email to TPG.

Rounding out the big three legacy carriers is United. The airline wouldn’t confirm with TPG which teams it flies, but online research shows that the airline likely still carries 10 teams: the Chicago Bears, Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos, Houston Texans, Kansas City Chiefs, LA Rams, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and the Washington Redskins all took United charters during the last season.

The Chicago Bears deplane from a United airlines flight in January 28, 2007 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
The Chicago Bears deplane from a United Airlines charter flight in January 28, 2007 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

United, like other airlines, gives team charters a special flight number. The Houston Texans received UA2536 while the Denver Broncos got UA2544. United flew those teams in either wide-body 767-400s or single-aisle 757-300s.

Some international carriers entered the mix this year since the league scheduled multiple games in London. Virgin Atlantic ferried the Jaguars from Jacksonville to London for one of the special games.

Two lesser-known companies, Atlas Air and Miami Air, stepped in to help the teams that had been dropped by the big three carriers.

Both the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers were flown on one of Miami Air’s seven 737-800s this season, the airline told TPG. The 737s it uses for sports charters are outfitted with a VIP interior containing only first-class seats in a 2-2 layout.

The interior of Miami Air’s VIP 737-800. Image courtesy of Miami Air.

Atlas Air is a large cargo, charter and airline lessor. It counts 81 aircraft in its fleet with a whopping 51 747s (the biggest fleet of Boeing 747s in the world), mostly cargo.

The Jacksonville Jaguars charted a 747-400 from Atlas Air last season. The jumbo jet, usually operated for long-haul travel, was used on hops as short as 58 minutes when the Jaguars went to Atlanta.

And last not but least, the Oakland Raiders, soon to be based in Vegas, have chartered with Hawaiian Airlines. Hawaiian even has an A330 with a special Raiders-themed livery.

Will we see another football team buy a private aircraft like the Patriots anytime soon? It’s unclear, but it sure would be cool to see a red and gold San Francisco 49ers Airbus land next to a New Orleans Saints 747 emblazoned with a black and gold fleur de lys.

Featured image by Nick Wosika/Icon Sportswire / Getty Images

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