Connecticut Sun players react to WNBA full-time charter flights: ‘We’re all kind of shocked”

UNCASVILLE — When Connecticut Sun guard Rachel Banham first saw the news on social media that the WNBA is launching a full-time charter flight program for the 2024 season, the eight-year veteran wasn’t even sure it was real.

“I almost thought it was a joke,” Banham said, shaking her head. “It’s like, unbelievable. We knew it could get there, but you never knew when, so we’re all kind of shocked. Everyone is so pumped, and it’s so nice for those of us who have been in the league for such a long time and haven’t ever seen it. To the young ones we’re like, ‘Be grateful for this, because this is not what we’ve been dealing with.'”

Chartered air travel — or lack thereof — has long been a spot of contention between the league and its players. All 12 WNBA teams travel to regular-season games on commercial flights under the current collective bargaining agreement, and the New York Liberty were fined $500,000 in 2022 for using charter flights provided by owners Joe and Clara Tsai.

Tensions rose again in 2023 when Brittney Griner returned to the Phoenix Mercury after a highly-publicized 10-month detainment in Russia. Griner was harassed by a right-wing social media personality at the Dallas airport while the Mercury were flying commercially for a game against the Wings last season, but only Griner was allowed to fly charter for the rest of the year. The league introduced charter flights for all playoff games in 2023, but commissioner Cathy Engelbert said as recently as the WNBA Draft on April 15 that the league was waiting for “the right financial position” to implement a full-time program.

That financial position apparently came sooner than expected with the arrival of one of the most popular rookie classes in WNBA history. Social media erupted with safety concerns for No. 1 draft pick Caitlin Clark over a viral video of her at the airport for the Indiana Fever’s preseason game, and Chicago Sky first-rounder Angel Reese is the most-followed active player in the league on Instagram with an audience of more than 3.1 million.

Star forward DeWanna Bonner expected to see chartered travel in the WNBA sooner rather than later, but it was a major surprise when the news dropped days before the start of her 15th season. Prior to the announcement, the veteran said she wondered whether she would be in the league long enough to see this kind of change take effect.

“You could feel it coming, probably in the next year or so with the players that’ve come in and bring a lot of attention,” Bonner said. “They have to, first and foremost, be safe. Everybody around women’s basketball is talking about if it’s going to be safe, so you kind of feel it brewing … but it’s crazy that it took 15 years to get to having private planes. I’m just happy that I’m still a part of it and can reap a little bit of the benefits.”

The WNBA remains vague on when it expects the $25 million charter program to be fully implemented. Engelbert said in a meeting with sports editors Tuesday that it will launch “as soon as we can get planes in places,” but the league faces a major time crunch with just six days until the season tips off. The Sun host Clark and the Indiana Fever for their 2024 opener at Mohegan Sun on May 14.

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Chartered flights are particularly impactful for the Sun as the only team that does not operate out of a major city. Teams traveling to or from Uncasville typically fly into Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, then have to make the nearly 60-mile drive down to Mohegan Sun Arena. Commercial travel also forces teams to spend an extra day on the road, and their routines are interrupted by unpredictable flight times and the chaos of public airport security.

“You deal with it, but that is one of the more annoying things about playing in Connecticut is the travel piece and having to go all the way to Hartford,” Banham said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do and all that with the plans, but it just makes things so much smoother … You’re not sleeping in your own bed, you’re always in hotels and waking up at crazy different hours to get to the airport, get your bags. The accumulation of it all, it sucks, so it’s gonna make such a difference.”