The timing was awful. By mid-April, NFL teams pretty much have travel arrangements for their preseason and regular-season road games set. To learn then that an airline no longer will provide charter flights for those trips is far from ideal.
Yet, that was when the Buffalo Bills and about 19 other clubs around the league were informed they would suddenly need to find new carriers for this season.
United, which had flown the Bills to all of their away games, was joining American in a collective decision by some of the nation's major airlines to reduce or eliminate its charter business because, according to industry insiders, it wasn't as lucrative as commercial flights.
There was more than a little bit of panic as the search began for alternatives.
"It was a scramble," said Brendon Rowe, the Bills' new director of football operations.
At the time they received the jolting news from United, the Bills were also going through a front-office transition that led to the hiring of Brandon Beane as their general manager in early May. Later that month, they hired Rowe.
His first assignment: Find a replacement carrier for United.
It wasn't a question of if the Bills or the other NFL teams in the same boat would reach a charter agreement with a new airline. "In the grand scheme of things, the games are going to be played and we'd get to them on a charter flight," Rowe said.
Still, the clock was ticking on securing the carrier for 10 trips, the first of which was for the Aug. 17 preseason game against the Eagles at Philadelphia.
Enter the NBA, which reached out to offer to help the Bills and other NFL teams that had their charter deals canceled.
Thanks to a lease deal it cut with Delta for most of its 30 teams, the NBA has access to a fleet of modified 757s, known as VIP jets that are designed to move sports teams and entertainers. Normally, a 757-200 has about 160 seats, but the VIP version has 71, with three levels of first-class accommodations front to back. Twenty-eight are sleeper seats that fully recline, 12 are club seats that partially recline, and 31 are domestic first-class seats.
In June, Rowe and a representative of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had their charter service dropped by American, took a look at a VIP. Rowe, and the Bills, were sold. (The Steelers and the Miami Dolphins, who also lost their American deal, ended up going with Miami Air International.)
With roughly 155 passengers in the typical NFL traveling party – far more than an NBA club – the Bills and other NFL teams use two VIP planes for each trip. Players and most of the coaches are on one, while staff and other coaches are on the other.
That's how the Bills traveled to their preseason games at Philadelphia and Detroit, and to Charlotte for their Sept. 17 loss against the Carolina Panthers. Ditto for the trip to Atlanta for Sunday's game against the Falcons and next weekend's contest at Cincinnati.
From Nov. 1 through the balance of the NFL season, Delta and other carriers will have more of their fleet available for charters because they won't be flying as many international routes. Therefore, the Bills will be using a single Boeing 747 for their trips to Los Angeles, to face the Chargers on Nov. 19, and Miami, to face the Dolphins on Dec. 31, and a single Boeing 767 for their trips to Newark, N.J., to face the Jets on Nov. 2, and the Kansas City, to face the Chiefs on Nov. 26. The only exception of the post-Nov. 1 trips is for the Dec. 24 clash with the New England Patriots; the Bills will go back to the two VIP Delta jets.
Some sports teams, such as the NBA's Dallas Mavericks, tried to remove cost and other variables of charter flying by purchasing their own planes. Although the New England Patriots have bought two, they were, as of two weeks ago, still awaiting FAA certification for them and were also utilizing Delta's VIP aircraft for the time being.
There could come a day when the Bills and other NFL teams follow suit, and the problems encountered with American and United this year could influence such a move. Bills owners Terry and Kim Pegula also own the Sabres, who also travel on a Delta charter, so having their own planes (besides the corporate jet they have) could make sense with two teams using them.
When it comes to making travel arrangements for an NFL team – or an NBA squad – size matters. The majority of passengers are extremely large men, and keeping them comfortable falls under the heading of doing everything possible for optimum performance during the game.
Richie Incognito, the Bills' 11th-year Pro Bowl guard, has been around long enough to remember when comfort wasn't always a priority in the transportation of NFL players.
"Basically, we'd take like a 737, they'd stuff everyone in there – coaches have first class, all the players in the back in economy – and it was terrible, it was awful traveling," Incognito said. "It's gotten better through the years. Rex (Ryan, Sean McDermott's predecessor) was a players' coach, so he would have the four oldest guys on offense and the four oldest guys on defense in first class, and then coaches and everybody else in the back.
"But (with everyone on one plane) it's kind of like a free-for-all in the back. You have the staff and then from row 13 back, it's a zoo. It's just like, sit wherever, do whatever."
If there has been a bright side to the Bills ending up with the NBA's VIP planes, it's the considerable increase in space for guys who need it.
"As a big guy, I need space, I need room to stretch out," Incognito said. "I like the enlarged bathroom on the thing so I'm not like crunched over there in my suit. But traveling is a hassle and you've got to try to make it as comfortable as possible.
"Part about being a pro is making (travel) a routine. When you eat, what do you do when you get off the plane? Do you stretch? Do you sleep? When only have eight real shots to do it, so I encourage guys to find a routine. Get a hydration schedule going. If we take a long flight, you've got to get up, you've got to move around, you've got to stretch. It can be a pain in the butt if you don't have a plan."
Thanks to the NBA, the Bills had a Plan B for travel this season.
*So much for the importance of training camp. Aaron Donald, the Los Angeles Rams' All-Everything defensive tackle, proved that by missing all of his team's summer practices because of a contractual dispute. He reported the day before the season-opener, and saw his first action in Week 2, after only three practices.
Donald was in good enough physical condition to be on the field for 115 snaps against the Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers, a remarkably high total for a massive (6-foot-1 and 280 pounds) athlete. He also had no problem instantly grasping a new defensive scheme.
How did he do it? According to ESPN, Donald worked with a trainer in Pittsburgh, Dewayne Brown of 2/10ths Speed & Agility, that put him through a series of high-intensity sessions, each lasting 45 minutes with breaks lasting no more than two minutes. As for the scheme, new Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips keeps the terminology and assignments as basic as possible so they can be learned quickly.
*The trend for participants in the NFL's series of London games is to arrive only a couple of days, rather than a week, in advance. Of the eight teams involved in the four games this year, only two have chosen to arrive a week early in order to become acclimated to the time change and be able to do a little sight-seeing: the New Orleans Saints, who face the Miami Dolphins Sunday, and the Arizona Cardinals, who face the Rams on Oct. 22.
Some of it is simply because London trips have pretty much become a routine part of the NFL schedule. However, coaches do like to stick with what works, and that's the case with the Saints' Sean Payton. His team spent the week in London in 2008 before a victory against the San Diego Chargers.