NCAA Dismisses Concerns Over Safety on Charter Flight

charterAfter reading my post this week about safety concerns on a charter flight taken by Stanford University’s softball team, Mark Lewis took it upon himself to look into the matter.

Mr. Lewis, the NCAA’s executive vice president for championships and alliances, oversees the staff that arranges postseason travel for all 89 championships, and he was disturbed by what he found—but not because of the airplane’s safety record.

He was bothered by what he saw as an inaccurate portrayal of the airplane (pictured above) and a misrepresentation of the association’s track record of providing safe travel. He also dismissed the notion, also raised in the article, that cost considerations dictate decisions involving NCAA-scheduled travel.

The airplane in question, which a Stanford official had described as a “rickety old prop plane” without enough room to carry the team’s equipment, actually has the highest possible safety rating given by the independent airline-safety service that the NCAA uses.

According to a Web site that monitors charter flights, the plane is a 19-year-old Embraer turbo prop that seats 30 passengers. In an interview, Mr. Lewis said that this particular plane had been used in commercial service, and that some Pac-12 institutions own similar models.

“If there are concerns about whether we’re putting people on unsafe planes, my categorical answer to that is no. Safety is something we don’t compromise ever,” Mr. Lewis said. “And if student-athletes or coaches feel like we’re cutting corners trying to get cheap charters, it concerns me greatly. I don’t want them having that fear because it’s unfounded.”

The questions arose after Kevin Blue, an associate athletic director at Stanford, tweeted that it was “hard to believe that @NCAA sent us on a prop plane for a 4.5 hr flight from Nebraska to San Jose.” He also noted concerns about traveling in thunderstorms that were moving through the area.

Mr. Lewis said he’d been on 747 airplanes that did not feel safe in storms. “That’s something you can’t control,” he said. “You can choose not to go up in the air, but once you’re up, it can be scary in a storm.”

In my post on Monday, Mr. Blue stressed that he was grateful that the Stanford team returned safely on Sunday night, and emphasized his appreciation to the NCAA for getting athletes back in time for class on Monday. (I sent him a note Thursday afternoon mentioning the NCAA’s concerns, but he did not respond.)

The NCAA is arranging travel for some 10,000 athletes this month alone, many of whom must be moved on less than 48 hours’ notice. Mr. Lewis said the only available commercial options for Stanford’s softball team would have put students back two days later and included a 200-mile drive.

“It was clearly the best option,” he said. He added that the charter had enough room to carry Stanford’s equipment, but that the team and its bags weighed 800 pounds more than the university had estimated. “The pilots felt they couldn’t take all the equipment because it was not safe to fly with more weight than what the plane can hold,” he said.

As for the notion that the NCAA chooses cheaper alternatives on flights, Mr. Lewis dismissed that as well. He said that about 65 percent of the association’s Division I postseason travel costs are related to charter aircraft. And the plane that flew Stanford’s players back on Sunday bills out at $4,500 per hour.

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