The moment Auburn beat Kentucky in overtime Sunday, charter flights from Montgomery, Ala., to Minneapolis-St. Paul went on sale.
Within two days, all 600 airplane seats managed by Anthony Travel sold out. So did several hundred more packages that the sporting-events travel company offered for ground transportation, hotel and exclusive parties for Auburn fans in Minneapolis, host city for the Final Four games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this weekend.
Like other tournaments or playoff events, Final Four air travel decisions are often made at the last minute as fans eagerly try to find their way to the host city in hopes of seeing their team win a national championship.
For those fans, workers and officials at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — as well as at the metro area’s reliever airports — have spent months preparing a smooth landing and positive first look at Minnesota.
“We are as ready as we can be, but the situation is so fluid. These things come together really quickly,” said Phil Burke, director of MSP Operations.
On Sunday night and Monday, airlines sold 6,000 more tickets out of MSP for next Tuesday, the day after the championship game, Burke said.
Meanwhile, the heaviest arrival day at MSP will be Friday, when officials anticipate seeing 10,000 more arrivals than on a typical day. That’s a big bump, but not nearly as big as last year’s Super Bowl when the airport planned for an additional 25,000 passengers arriving on the busiest day before the game.
Private jet reservations at the region’s smaller airports also increased dramatically in the last few days. Planners expect about 500 private planes to come in and out of the Twin Cities during the weekend, compared to 1,500 during the Super Bowl week. Parking these planes is a logistical hurdle. On Monday morning, the system showed just 50 parking reservations for private jets during the games. Within three hours, reservations were up to 150.
The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) expects to accommodate about 300 private jets during the championship game compared to 600 during the Super Bowl, said Gary Schmidt, the MAC’s director of reliever airports. The majority of the private aircraft will use St. Paul Downtown Airport and Flying Cloud Airport in Eden Prairie, with some using Anoka County-Blaine Airport and MSP.
“With the Super Bowl, we were seeing a lot of large corporate jets. A lot,” he said. “We thought these [Final Four planes] would be smaller aircraft, but we are actually seeing a lot of reservations for corporate jets.”
But the reliever airports are all thankful this event is in April rather than February, like the Super Bowl, when they needed to add de-icing equipment and stations to handle the volume of private jets requesting those services, Schmidt said.
Earlier this week, MSP took a flurry of charter flight inquiries fueled by the playing teams’ fans.
Auburn, Ala., for instance, is about 100 miles from Atlanta and the closest major airport offering consistent flights to Minneapolis-St. Paul. That pushed a number of fans to book team packages through a private travel company like Anthony Travel, which specializes in sports events and has four full flights scheduled to depart Montgomery for MSP on Friday, Burke said.
Charter flights require special services that the airport staff must help orchestrate. Most of these charter companies want their flights to be handled “ramp side,” Burke said, which means the passengers never come through the airport security, terminals or a jet bridge. Instead, those passengers deplane using stairs that lead them onto the tarmac and on to tour buses, which the airport has to escort on and off the airfield to ensure security and prevent airfield collisions.
That’s also something MSP had experience with during last year’s Super Bowl. And the teams playing in the Final Four were due to arrive at MSP Wednesday on the ramp rather than the terminal.
Burke sees the airports’ roles as crucial to the ability of the Twin Cities to attract big-ticket sports events.
“We want to provide a phenomenal first and last impression for fans,” he said. “We don’t want people to say, ‘Yeah, Minneapolis was a good host except for the airport.’ ”