“It’s been crazy,” says Alex Sadat-Shafai, Air Charter Service’s (ACS) global football sales director, reflecting on the last 18 months for the aircraft hire company. “I think that’s probably the word I would use.”
The arrival of the pandemic may have initially meant the world had to operate at a much slower pace. But as restrictions lifted, the sporting calendar returned and air travel resumed. The show has gone on, albeit with the added challenges of Covid bubbles, lateral flow tests and the like. Using privately hired aircraft for travel has also been crucial for sports teams during this period.
While things may well have been, as Sadat-Shafai put it, “crazy” for ACS, it has swiftly pivoted to meet the increased demand. Founded by Chris Leach in Kingston Upon Thames back in 1990, and currently arranging approximately 23,000 flights per year, the company is now the largest private charter brokerage in the world. With 27 offices across six continents, and with access to 50,000 aircraft worldwide, ACS is able to offer a broad service ranging from private jet hire to cargo plane charters.
It’s little wonder, then, that numerous high-profile sports organisations rely on ACS to ensure they arrive at their destination without a hitch. Sadat-Shafai, who is based in the UK, works regularly with soccer’s governing bodies, with ACS currently counting around 35 national soccer federations amongst its clientele. More rugby teams are also coming on board.
Across the pond, the market for ACS is very different, but the goal remains the same – to make a difference with an unrivalled personal service.
The company has access to 50,000 aircraft worldwide and arranges approximately 23,000 flights per year
“A huge part of the charter market in America is collegiate sports. There’s a significant spend and it continues to increase year-over-year,” explains Marcus Kelly, ACS’s vice president of sports, North America.
“When I first got into this industry several years ago, it was a significant amount of football and basketball charters. But we’re starting to see a lot of growth within sports like volleyball, soccer, swimming, diving, gymnastics, track and field.
“All of these smaller, lower budget programmes are getting the resources to charter at least once a year. Even some of these really small schools are starting to see some booster and alumni money come through the programmes, which allows them to charter for some of their away games as well.
“There’s a couple of amateur events that we also participate in. When some of the professional sports clubs from overseas come to the US and tour, we also service them as well.”
Extensive travel, be it in the form of long coach trips, short-haul flights or transcontinental journeys, is part and parcel of being an elite athlete. While it might be the norm, the countless hours spent in the air are by no means considered an excuse for a drop in performance for players and staff alike. For ACS, minimising the impact of travel requires a detailed, methodical and collaborative approach when working with clients.
“There are two ways of looking at it,” says Sadat-Shafai. “You’ve got one side of the business in a sports association or team that is looking after the budget. And, of course, they’re keen to keep the budget down.
“On the flip side, you’ve got the operational aspects of the business where it’s all about just getting the job done. So it’s finding that balance between what you should spend, what you do spend and what you need to spend in order to make it work.
“Our job, in my eyes, is to bridge the gap. Try and bring them in line without affecting the service and having an impact on the teams.”
ACS’ Alex Sadat-Shafai (left) and Marcus Kelly
That service extends to specific elements crucial to performance, such as dietary requirements, which is a welcome change from the heavily processed, low quality food selection typically found in airport departure lounges.
“When we go through the main terminal airports, there’s just a bunch of garbage food that is not good for athletes to be consuming,” says Kelly. “We are able to bring forth customised menus that offer food that can be served on these flights.”
A flight with ACS also cuts down the waiting time, meaning more time for everything from preparation to recovery. The old saying ‘time is money’ holds greater weight in a sporting context.
“There’s less time waiting around, which means more time at home or more time resting,” Kelly continues. “Chartering allows athletes to have an expedited boarding and disembarkation process where you don’t have to go through the main terminals, the entire TSA [Transportation Security Administration] process of waiting in line and all that stuff.
“Flying private just really expedites the entire traveling process and allows people to have more time on the front and back end.”
Peace of mind is also another added benefit. The impact of Covid continues to linger, meaning travel can be a far more arduous process, with a single positive test potentially derailing even the best laid plans. ACS has stepped up to deal with such issues on behalf of its clients, ensuring a seamless journey from check-in to landing.
“For us, it’s important that everything remains the same from a team point of view,” says Sadat-Shafai. “Our job is to help mask the problems and the restrictions so that the athletes are unaffected when they travel.”
Few fans would complain that their team is able to travel quickly and conveniently to games. However, the climate crisis has forced sports organisations to address tough questions about how they get to events, particularly those taking place domestically.
In October, Manchester United were derided for their decision to fly the 100-mile journey to their Premier League match at Leicester City. The club cited ‘circumstances’ – believed to be road congestion – for the unplanned flight, but the reasoning was deemed insufficient by many. Notably, Forest Green Rovers owner Dale Vince, whose fourth-tier side is considered the greenest soccer club in the world, described the move as “horrific”.
United are by no means the only culprit. Also in the Premier League, Leeds United’s plane journey to Norwich earlier this season had an estimated flying time of 17 minutes. Over in the US, a National Basketball Association (NBA) team travels over 40,000 miles on average in one season – 15,000 miles more than the circumference of the Earth.
To that end, the aviation industry finds itself under the spotlight as pressure to be more sustainable intensifies. As a result, ACS says it is engaging with the aviation community on initiatives designed to reduce its carbon footprint through investment in new technology and sustainable aviation fuel.
February 2020 also saw the company launch its carbon offsetting programme, allowing customers to have the option to offset the carbon emissions burnt on their charter flight. This initiative sees ACS add 0.5 per cent (which it does not profit from) to the charter price, which is then invested into carbon credits in climate projects approved by the United Nations (UN). Projects include affordable renewable energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by burning less wood.
For ACS, the ultimate objective is to offset more emissions than have been produced.
Evidently, the company’s carbon offsetting efforts have been ramped up in response to the growing demand for charter flights. As sports organisations look to get the edge in competition, the smooth, specialist service provided by ACS offers a very attractive option.
“I’d like to think we’re the best in the world at what we do. We’ve got the largest number of offices worldwide, we’ve got the resource in order to help us,” says Sadat-Shafai.
“For the teams, everything needs to remain the same. The reason why they’re chartering is, obviously, for the comfort, for the preparation of what they’re going into. We’re all creatures of habit. Everyone likes everything the same. They like the same person to be at the airport, the same cabin crew. If everyone’s familiar, then the sports teams are going to be relaxed.
“If they’re relaxed, then their preparation is as good as it can be. If they’re not, it’s just a knock-on effect.”