Philadelphia Daily News - February 6, 1980
A Major League Air Force
By Bill Conlin
Second of two parts
Bowie Kuhn does a better job of swinging a champagne bottle for the TV cameras of 1982 than Bess Truman did in that classic christening footage recorded by motion picture cameras of the late 1940s. With one crisp flick of the wrist, baseball's commissioner bonks the nose of "Big Stick One" with a liter of California bubbly, which obligingly shatters on the first swing. Poor Bess broke Rich Ashburn's record for foul tips.
A new era is born. The Major League Air Force, six 727s strong, is ready for the airways, tail assemblies adorned with the National Pastime's red, white and blue ball-on-flag logo.
MAJOR LEAGUE Flying Service Charter No. 1147, taking the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox home to begin the regular season, is cleared for takeoff. By midnight, all nine ballclubs training in the Tampa Bay area will be ferried north by a four-jet shuttle. When the Dodgers arrive in California, their private 727 will Join the Padres' plane and the two remaining MLFS jets to airlift the Cactus League teams out of Arizona.
By rigid application of a specially coordinated schedule, major league baseball will use its fleet of planes – purchased for a staggering $21 million – to account for 85 percent of its regular-season travel needs. Phillies executive vice president Bill Giles, who masterminded the scheme during the 1980 travel crunch, was only semi-serious when he said, "It's a helluva bargain. We got six planes for less than the contracts of Dave Winfield and Dave Parker."
Blake Cullen, National League public relations director, confirms that the major leagues are seriously considering alternatives to increasingly hard-to-secure charter and commercial flights. The above scenario, a radical view, could come to pass only if other, less costly, schemes fall through.
BUT A GAME PLAN for a Major League Air Force has proceeded past the point of fanciful speculation.
"Our studies show it would take six planes to take care of baseball,'' said Cullen, a member of Major League Baseball Promotions Inc, a subsidiary corporation which markets various products, including "This Week in Baseball," the highly-rated weekly TV highlights show. "It would mean a little staggering of the schedule and planes, but by applying the actual schedules for 1979 and 1980. we found it would have been possible to satisfy 85 percent of all our travel needs."
There is a mitigating factor besides the high cost of used jets that will probably steer baseball away from the actual purchase of a fleet.
"PRICES ON USED jets vary quite a bit," Cullen said from New York yesterday. "We've had prices quoted anywhere from $2.5 to $5 million, depending on number of hours flown, configuration and actual age. Buying a used plane is a lot like buying a used car – you've got to go out and kick some tires. But even if we bought the planes, the question becomes, would we find enough fuel available to keep them in the air? If the airlines are cutting back charters due to fuel shortages, what would happen to us?"
The same would hold true if baseball leased six jets. Fuel acquisition would be baseball's responsibility and they would probably pay a prohibitive price for it from independent suppliers.
"Leasing is not a whole lot different from buying as far as the cost and fuel availability factors are concerned," Cullen said. "What we would like to do – and what we're exploring the most – is to get into some kind of consolidating-type arrangement with an airline or charter firm. In any arrangement, it comes down to six planes. For example, one plane would take the Texas Rangers to New York, then turn right around and take the Yankees to Kansas City."
CULLEN USED TO BE traveling secretary for the Cubs and he knows baseball's 26 traveling sees are teetering on the edge of a 1980 transportation crisis.
"Nobody has come right out and said they can't get to a particular city this season – so far," Cullen said. "But I hear the same thing all over both leagues. Clubs are getting charter quotes, but no commitments. A lot of commercial bookings remain unconfirmed and we're coming up on the season. We want to avoid having to go to NBA or NHL-type rules where a club has to take the first available flight out on the day of a game. We like to think we'll be able to continue arriving in the next town at least the night before a day game, but we're feeling pressure."
Baseball had several embarrassing incidents last season where games were halted short of completion because of travel time limits. "It's terribly unfair to the fans," Cullen said. "We dont want to get into time limit situations, but it's become a definite problem, particularly on Sunday afternoons. What do you do when the last flight to Chicago is at 6 p.m. and you've got a Monday day game scheduled?"
GILES IS THE HEAD of M L Promotions. Any large-scale collective travel plan would probably have to be funded to a large extent by corporation funds. Can you hear Charlie Finley's howls after he's assessed $1 million for his share in baseball's air force?
"It's the marketing area of baseball and they have funds available through our national marketing program," Cullen said. "Bill Giles considers the travel problems today and down the road for baseball as an even greater threat to the health of the game than player-management contract problems."
Giles is currently trying to work out a full-season, all-flights arrangement with United Air Lines. But on of the problems with chartering with a group as small as a baseball traveling party of 50 is the high cost per passenger, the reason the NBA and NHL are forced to fly commercially. You could make the operation a lot more economical if you could fill the 40-to-75 empty seats a ballclub invariably winds up with on a 727-sized jet.
GILES WOULD LIKE to recruit all available non-club bodies, including the six writers who follow the club on the road. Four of those writers have morning paper deadlines and rarely travel on Phillies charters. It's impossible to write a coherent game, story in the hour or less the Philies allow between the last out and departure for the airport, particularly when you've got to wait a half-hour for the athletes to come out of hiding. Giles says he'd be willing to incur player wrath and increase the time to 1:15. That is still not enough.
Maybe Giles should consider the group tour business – put together a plane hotel-ticket package open to fans at attractive rates. Can you see it on the Vet message board: "There are still a limited number of seats available for the Phillies' next road trip to Cincinnati, Atlanta and Houston."
That kind of arrangement would create severe insurance problems.
Meanwhile. look for this ad in the classified columns of Aviation Monthly any issue now:
WANTED TO BUY OR LEASE – Six 727s (standard commercial configuration preferred) in reasonable repair. Will consider any aircraft built since 1970. No planes used for gun-running or migrant labor transport, please. Contact Air Marshal Bowie Kuhn, P.O. Box 1980. New York City.