Super Bowl Jet-Setters Face Tarmac Gridlock

The Wall Street Journal, U.S. NEWS, FEBRUARY 4, 2012

The nation's wealthiest football fans are descending in droves on Indianapolis for Sunday's Super Bowl, setting off a scramble by airport officials in this modest Midwest hub to accommodate the influx of private jets.

About 1,100 private planes are expected to ferry in corporate chieftains and other bigwigs to see the New York Giants face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. That's one of the largest fleets of luxury planes in the Super Bowl's history, flying into one of the smallest cities to ever host the game.

Indianapolis, with a population of about 820,000, is the first city to host a Super Bowl with just one air-traffic control tower in a 50-mile radius. The Federal Aviation Administration has set up five new departure routes along with three temporary control towers—mobile units with glass-domed ceilings parked in the airfields—at nearby airports.

Michael Medvescek, chief operating officer of the Indianapolis Airport Authority, said the plane squeeze has left no spot to park a private jet within 30 miles of Lucas Oil Stadium.

Sunday is the Super Bowl of professional football, and as WSJ Wealth Report editor Robert Frank reports on Mean Street, it's the Super Bowl of private jet rentals as well. Photo: AP.

The result is that some VIPs will have to park their jets VFA—very far away. "We were not expecting this whatsoever," said Brian Payne, manager of the airport in French Lick, Ind., a town of 1,800 two hours' drive south of Indianapolis, most commonly associated with NBA legend Larry Bird.

At least seven private planes will land in French Lick this weekend—more arrivals than the airport typically handles in a week.

The FAA said this year's expected number of private planes is similar to the total for Dallas-Fort Worth, which hosted last year's Super Bowl, and is about 400 more than in 2010. But Indianapolis is hardly a frequent stop for the jet set. Forbes showed just four Indiana residents in its 2011 list of billionaires. Texas had 44.

Combined with additional commercial flights, the FAA expects an overall increase in the Indianapolis area of nearly 3,500 arrivals and departures for the festivities. That's about eight times the uptick in air traffic for a typical Indianapolis 500 car race.

Complicating the congestion on Sunday will be FAA rules that no planes can fly within 10 miles of the stadium between 4:30 p.m. and one hour after the NFL champion is crowned. Four of the 16 airports handling private planes lie within the no-fly zone, including Indianapolis International.

The line at Indianapolis International may be longer than the postgame wait at past Super Bowls because the lack of available rooms at hotels—and especially luxury hotels—in Indianapolis is forcing attendees to fly in and out on game day. Though the airport is increasing takeoffs to 100 per hour that night, Mr. Medvescek said, the wait could approach four hours.

Mr. Medvescek said another complication on Sunday night will be hundreds of planes wanting to go in the same direction. Air-traffic controllers plan to send some of the planes west to begin their flights, otherwise "we'll have the centers on the East Coast calling and saying, `Hey, slow these planes down because we can't handle it.' "

Charter companies and others are making special plans to appease the elite mobs of potentially angry private-jetters on the tarmac Sunday night. Million Air, which services private jets parked at Indianapolis International, has created a catered VIP lounge in an aircraft hangar, with eight 70-inch televisions, two theater screens and a race car simulator. "You know, something to pass the time while they're waiting," said Drent Sarault, Million Air's Indianapolis director.

Magellan Jets, based in Quincy, Mass., is providing free gourmet cheese-and-fruit plates and complimentary Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve Champagne to fans of the winning team (fans have to tell the company which team they're backing before the inbound flight).

"We know that when they are on the plane home, they're going to be grumpy and hungry," said Joshua Hebert, Magellan's CEO.

Many clients are stocking the planes themselves with food and drinks for the long wait, said Todd Rome, president of Blue Star Jets, a New York-based private-jet charter company that booked hundreds of clients to the big game this year. He said he's getting "monster catering orders" from New York's venerable Carnegie Deli, the hip sushi restaurant Nobu, and several bagel makers.

"When you have a boys' day like this, you wouldn't believe how much food they can plan to eat," he said. "They'll be ready for the delay."

One group is so eager to avoid the late-night delay on the tarmac, they plan to skip out at halftime, said Mr. Sarault of Million Air.

Trailing the group of half-time fleers will be the half-time performer herself, Madonna. To avoid the rush and the no-fly restrictions, she plans to leave after her performance and fly out of a county airport, Mr. Medvescek said.

Private jet companies say this year's strong demand is being driven partly by a rebound in the fortunes of the rich, and by the affluent fan base of the Giants and Patriots. Some of the private-fliers going to the game from New York include film mogul Harvey Weinstein, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, and the Russia-born billionaire Len Blavatnik, people familiar with the matter say. The influx is also a result of lower costs for private jets due to the weak economy. Mr. Rome said chartering a small, "light" jet to the big game can cost as little as $14,000 for a round trip, or $2,000 per passenger if there are seven passengers.

Said Blue Star's Mr. Rome: "Anytime you get a team from the wealthy coasts, like New York or L.A. or San Fran, you're going to get a lot people flying private to the game."

—Tom McGinty contributed to this article.

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