May 20, 2024 

Washington Mystics miffed at WNBA charter flight program’s uneven rollout

Cross-country flights were expected to be prioritized for charters before full charter program takes effect

WASHINGTON — When the Washington Mystics fly to Los Angeles on Monday, May 20 to start a three-game West Coast trip, they will take a commercial flight, despite the WNBA’s introduction of charter flights this season.

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The WNBA announced the charter flights program on May 9, five days before the start of the season, and said that charter flights would be “phased in” during the regular season. For opening-night games, the Indiana Fever flew charter to Connecticut and the Minnesota Lynx flew charter to Seattle.

But other teams flew commercial to their games that night and have continued to since. The Mystics flew commercial for their first road trip of the season, to Connecticut for a Friday night game. Their flight there was delayed, according to The Washington Post’s Kareem Copeland.

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The league followed up its initial announcement by stating on Thursday that all teams would consistently take charter flights starting on Tuesday, May 21 — the day after the Mystics’ flight to Los Angeles.

On Saturday, Mystics guard Brittney Sykes revealed on the social media platform X that the team would fly commercial to Los Angeles. She pointed out that the Mystics’ flight is much longer than Indiana’s was to Connecticut and wrote, “No shade , just really interested for the reasoning,” tagging the WNBA and Commissioner Cathy Engelbert.

Mystics guard Ariel Atkins and wing DiDi Richards both told The Next on Sunday that Engelbert had told players that until charters were fully implemented, the WNBA would prioritize them for trips that were cross-country or involved a layover. The Chicago Sun-Times’ Annie Costabile previously reported that Engelbert held a town-hall meeting with players on May 13 about the charter program.

Richards told The Next the Mystics understood not getting a charter up to Connecticut given the short distance. But the question she and other Mystics have is, doesn’t Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles qualify as cross-country?

“Obviously, things are still a little jagged and they’re still figuring it out. I’m not happy about it,” Atkins told The Next. “But I’m also understanding that things take time. Would we have liked to be prioritized because we are a part of the prioritization … that was stated? Yes. But, I mean, we gotta go play anyways.”

“The fact that we have charters, we’re super, super grateful,” Richards, who also praised Engelbert’s efforts to grow and expand the league, told The Next. “It just kind of sucks when something is dangled in front of your face.”

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Mystics head coach Eric Thibault expressed similar frustrations.

“I’d like to be as diplomatic as I can on this,” he told reporters before the team’s loss to the Seattle Storm on Sunday. “… It’s great that we have charters on their way. I understood that there was a prioritization of teams who are going cross-country or have layovers. I would think a cross-country trip to LA would fall into that.

“I don’t really know why we aren’t chartering tomorrow. … I know [the WNBA is] trying to get up to speed. But it is hard to just accept that we know other teams have had charters [to] places and we’re going cross-country with a day in between games and we’re not on one. So it’s frustrating, but we’ll have charters soon enough, I’m told.”

Thibault added that his assumption is that there is no plane available for the Mystics to use and mentioned how challenging planning team travel can be. It took the Mystics staff months this offseason to plan the team’s commercial travel, he said. In contrast, the WNBA is attempting to have charters fully in place less than two weeks after its announcement.

When reached for comment on Sunday, a league spokesperson referred The Next back to Thursday’s statement, which read, “As the league previously announced, we would be phasing in the program at the start of the season and can share that beginning May 21 all teams will be flying charter to games.”

Other players around the league have made similar comments in recent days, including Alysha Clark of the Las Vegas Aces. The former Mystics forward responded to the news, first reporter by The Next, that the WNBA is investigating bonus payments made to the 12 Aces players by saying: “Can we investigate Cathy in her decisions on who is allowed to charter and who isn’t?”

Atkins said she has talked to players on other teams “a little bit” about chartering. “We’re all kind of in the same boat,” she said. “We’re just trying to figure out what is actually being prioritized, what is actually being said, is it what’s actually happening? I mean, because you see them talking about prioritizing certain teams, and then you have teams that are on the East Coast that are taking East Coast trips that are chartering.”

Atkins, Richards and Thibault all expect to fly charter for the rest of the team’s West Coast trip, which takes them from Los Angeles to Phoenix to face the Mercury on Thursday, and then up to Seattle to play the Storm on Saturday. In Atkins’ view, the first flight of the trip is generally “the most important,” but she is excited to be able to fly home immediately after the Seattle game on a charter rather than taking a red-eye or next-day commercial flight.

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In previous seasons, charter flights were only allowed for back-to-back games that required air travel, the Commissioner’s Cup and playoff games. The New York Liberty were fined $500,000 for chartering their own additional flights in 2021. Atkins said that she has only ever flown charter with the Mystics during the 2023 playoffs.

Atkins and Richards anticipate that the benefits of charter travel will be significant, especially in an Olympic year, when the WNBA’s 40-game schedule is more condensed.

“Instead of traveling on an off day, [for us to] get back and have a full off day I think would be more beneficial to our bodies in the long run,” Richards said. “So I think that’ll play a huge part in just the load management that all teams are kind of taking more into consideration these last couple years.

“I think that’ll help a lot, honestly.”

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Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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