‘The grand slam of carrying champions’: Atlanta Braves’ World Series win gives Delta a clean sweep

Nov 4, 2021

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The Atlanta Braves and Glenn Youngkin weren’t the only big winners Tuesday night. Delta Air Lines won too, apparently becoming the first airline ever to carry the champions of the five biggest national sports on its charter aircraft.

“It is the grand slam of carrying champions,” said Bill Wernecke, managing director of charter sales and operations at Delta, which has trademarked the designation “Official Airline of Champions.”

In the past year, in addition to the Braves, Delta charters have transported the NFL champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, the NHL champion Tampa Bay Lightning and the NCAA football champion Alabama Crimson Tide.

Delta charters carry 105 college and pro teams, including 28 NBA teams, 22 NCAA football teams, 14 MLB teams, 13 NFL teams and 10 NHL teams. Even with all of that business, Delta has just a 1% chance of carrying all five champions, Wernecke calculated.

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Since 2000, Delta has carried 63 championship teams out of a possible 105 from the four big major leagues plus college football. In each of those past 21 years, Delta has carried at least one champion, but 2021 was the first year with all five. Before 2000, the sports charter business was more diversified, making it unlikely that any carrier had five champions.

In carrying sports teams, Delta uses a fleet of 11 dedicated Boeing 757s, each with 72 first-class seats. The aircraft are used to fly NBA, NHL and MLB teams; pro and college football teams use larger wide-body aircraft from the Delta mainline fleet.

Pilots and flight attendants apply to work the flights. Catering is emphasized, with passengers generally being provided food as they board as well as during the flight.

Delta was pleased by the Braves’ victory, not only because it carries the team, but also because the carrier is based in Atlanta. “They’re our customers and the Astros aren’t,” Wernecke said. United Airlines, the second-largest sports team charter operator, carries the Astros — which also play for United’s hub city of Houston.

Ed Bastian, Delta Air Lines CEO, greets the new World Series champions, the Atlanta Braves, as they arrive home on Nov. 3. (Photo by Chris Rank, Rank Studios)

The Braves’ Airbus A330 touched down at 6:37 p.m. Wednesday at the Signature terminal at the northern end of the Atlanta airport. It was greeted by Delta CEO Ed Bastian. Delta has carried the Braves since they arrived in Atlanta in 1966.

Generally, Delta uses its 757 charter fleet to carry MLB teams, but more Braves staffers and family members traveled to Houston for the World Series game, requiring the wide-body aircraft.

For the NFL, Delta also uses mainline aircraft such as A330s, and each player gets his own row. For college football, Delta also uses mainline aircraft. Its 23 college football teams include most SEC and ACC teams. Delta also carries some college basketball teams, using smaller mainline aircraft.

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The NBA has a different arrangement. It owns its 757 aircraft but has a contract with Delta to operate them. Delta flies 28 of the 30 NBA teams; the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets own their own airplanes. During baseball season, MLB teams fly on the NBA aircraft, paying a user fee. Wernecke said there is surprisingly little overlap between the leagues’ seasons.

Delta’s position as a sports team charter carrier was strengthened by the 2008 merger with Northwest, since both were in the business. Wernecke previously managed charter operations for Northwest, where he started in 1991. “Northwest was big with the NBA, and Delta with the other sports, so when we merged we became the biggest in every sport,” Wernecke said.

He is a fan of the Minneapolis-area teams, but otherwise, he said, “I root for my customers. And when we have our own teams playing each other, I always root for the team that’s traveling, because if they win, they will be in a better mood when they get to the airport.”

Featured photo by Chris Rank, Rank Studios.


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