The Logistical Nightmare of Getting Athletes to the Olympics
(Bloomberg) -- Flying chartered is a luxury often reserved for rock stars and royalty. But China’s approach to Covid, with officials determined to stamp out the virus, means that most of the 3,000 or so skiers, snowboarders, skaters and bobsleigh riders descending on Beijing for the Winter Olympics next month will be arriving on specially arranged flights.
According to version two of the Beijing 2022 playbook -- a 70-page guide for athletes and team officials to a “safe and successful Games” -- air travel to China’s capital will be possible via charter, temporary and commercial flights. With the playbook also mandating that departures from Beijing be on temporary and charter flights only, and most commercial flights suspended anyway due to the pandemic, chartered is proving a popular option.
Delta Air Lines Inc., official carrier for Team USA, has reached an agreement with the U.S. Olympic Committee to operate a single charter on an Airbus SE A350 to fly athletes and others to the Games from Los Angeles on Jan. 27. It will make a stop in Incheon in South Korea to refuel and change crew. Another flight has been agreed for the 2022 Winter Paralympics that start on March 4.
“This is unprecedented for the Games,” Delta spokesman Anthony Black said of the planned single charter. “No one has ever carried this much of a contingent to the Games on one flight.” The A350 is Delta’s largest plane, seating 306.
According to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, the two delegations will include about 300 athletes once qualifiers are complete, plus several hundred coaches, trainers and support staff. The committee is also overseeing separate travel arrangements for U.S. athletes taking part in international competitions in other countries prior to the Games.
Testing is another issue for Games participants coming from afar. The official playbook stipulates people must take two Covid-19 tests within 96 hours of their departure to China, and one of those two tests must be within 72 hours of departure.
Team Canada is flying in 109 athletes on two specially-arranged flights with Air Canada, whose scheduled Beijing route is suspended due to Covid. Teams from some of Europe’s biggest winter sporting nations are also traveling on chartered planes.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG, owner of the flag-carriers of Germany, Austria and Switzerland, will fly those countries’ Olympic teams. Its namesake Lufthansa brand will transport the German team -- placed second after Norway in the medals table in the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea -- on four chartered Boeing Co. 747s from Frankfurt directly to the Chinese capital, a journey of around 10-and-a-half hours.
Austrian Airlines AG will fly the Austrian team, winner of the most downhill skiing medals at the 2018 Games, from Vienna to Beijing on chartered flights departing on Jan. 28 and Jan. 30. Swiss International Air Lines AG, however, will ferry athletes from Zurich to Beijing on daily scheduled flights ahead of the Games. Both airlines will use Boeing 777s, a spokeswoman for Lufthansa said.
The Finnish Olympic Committee has chartered direct flights with Finnair Oyj from Helsinki, FOC spokesman Mika Noronen said, while the Swedish team is also shunning the other option of so-called temporary flights.
Only 19 airlines have been permitted by Beijing to operate temporary flights, which ideally should transit through four preferred hubs of Paris, Tokyo, Singapore and Hong Kong. For many nations, the 19 carriers aren’t practical. There are no U.S. airlines on the list, for example, and while some big players like Singapore Airlines Ltd. and Qatar Airways QCSC make the grade, they aren’t exactly from places renowned for winter sports. Ethiopian Airlines Group is also on the list.
“The cost of the flight is approximately 25,000 krona ($2,700) per person,” said Lars Markusson, media manager of the Swedish Olympic Committee. “The only thing that has been a little different with the travel bookings is that the flights didn’t become available until shortly before the Games begin, which was challenging.” Sweden expects to send around 110 competitors and at least as many support staff, Markusson said.
South Korea is sending only a handful of athletes across disciplines including curling and figure skating. For that, Korean Air Lines Co. will operate a total of four chartered flights through Feb. 21, using regular passenger aircraft as well as passenger jets that have been transporting cargo during the pandemic.
The airline said it has agreed to provide two chartered flights for athletes and delegates from the Czech Republic, without providing more details. The Czech Republic is set to take its biggest-ever team to any Winter Olympics, announcing a squad of 113 earlier this month.
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