For the Super Bowl, the NFL gets into airport management

By Mike Kaszuba

When the Super Bowl was held in Minneapolis two years ago, federal aviation officials had a unique partner to make sure private planes bringing in fans avoided a logjam at Twin Cities airports – the National Football League.

The arrangement allowed for the use of an NFL reservation system as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), local airport officials, and the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) tried to manage the hundreds of private planes that arrived for the 2018 game in Minnesota.  The same system will be used again at the 2020 Super Bowl, to be held in Miami on February 2.

Documents obtained by Public Record Media, a non-profit based in Saint Paul, show that while federal and local officials in Minnesota generally praised the voluntary system, the arrangement gave the NFL a notable measure of control over general aviation traffic as an estimated 1,500 private planes transited the Twin Cities during the Super Bowl weekend.

The documents also show the lengths that both the FAA and the NFL went to make sure those arriving by private planes – the league’s most affluent fans – were accommodated.

NFL’s “proprietary reservation system”

According to FAA e-mails, the NFL’s reservation system served a number of functions, including handling complaints from local aircraft service operators.  The system’s point person was sought out for advice by FAA managers, and also directed when computer passwords would be given to local aviation officials so they could access what one MAC official described as the NFL’s “proprietary reservation system.”

In one case, Jose Hernandez (the NFL reservation system official for the game in Minnesota) was even given the job of sorting out whether a turbine helicopter owned in part by the New England Patriots – one of the teams playing in the game –should be given special “flexibility” because it was using an airport in southern Minnesota.  “Please route VIP question to Jose,” an FAA official wrote to the manager of the Owatonna airport.

The documents and e-mails, totaling 200 pages, detail the influence Hernandez had as the game approached.

In a September 2017 e-mail – five months before the game in Minnesota – Hernandez told FAA officials that “we are ready to roll out the General Aviation Reservation Program,” and instructed two FAA officials to “distribute the usernames and passwords to airport management for each airport,” and in addition told them to hand out a training document.

Hernandez also passed on instructions to local flight-based operators, or FBOs, the companies based at local airports that serviced the private aircraft.  “With such a large number of general aviation aircraft converging in and around the region during Super Bowl LII, we want and need every facility to maximize their operational capabilities,” Hernandez said in a June 2017 e-mail to Premier Jet, a private aircraft charter and service company based at Flying Cloud Airport in suburban Eden Prairie.

FAA/NFL collaboration

The documents do not make clear whether the FAA or the MAC had the authority to override the NFL, and there were no indications of any friction between the government agencies and the professional football league. A MAC official instead said that the FAA “wanted a better way to handle the traffic [and] the two parties got together and developed a program that solved the issues for everyone.”

According to the documents, FAA officials seemed to regularly seek Hernandez’ input. “After reviewing the airports included, I’m wondering if we should eliminate MGG (Maple Lake, MN),” Kurt Mara, the FAA’s traffic management officer in Minneapolis, said in a September 2017 e-mail to Hernandez.  “Their runway is only 2700′.  I’m doubtful they will see any traffic.”

“Thoughts?” asked Mara.

And while both the FAA and the MAC stressed that the NFL’s reservation system was voluntary, an FAA spokesman said that private aircraft bringing fans to the Super Bowl – but electing not to use the system – may not be able to park at a local airport, and would instead have to “drop and go.”

Whatever the arrangement, the FAA’s partnership with a private entity — in this case, the NFL — was noteworthy.

Chicago-based logistics company involved

The FAA documents listed Hernandez as the senior project manager for Super Bowl LII for SP+ GAMEDAY/NFL Transportation, a Chicago-based company.  According to a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing in 2019, posted on the company’s website, the company had a multi-year contract renewal with the NFL to provide “transportation and event logistics services” for Super Bowl games.

Both the SP+ Corporation and the NFL did not respond to requests for information, and the documents and other e-mails provided by the FAA were unclear about whether anyone paid for the service being provided by the NFL.

One July 2018 e-mail from a Minneapolis-based FAA official noted that the reservation system used for Minnesota’s Super Bowl was “provided by the NFL,” and that local FBOs were “managing it and charging a fee.”  The FAA official added: “It worked pretty well.”

But Rick Breitenfeldt, another FAA official, said in an e-mail to PRM that for this year’s Super Bowl, the NFL’s reservation system is “voluntary and there is no charge in Miami.”  The FAA added that the system would be used this year at six Miami-area airports.

Reservation system designed after Phoenix Super Bowl

Gary Schmidt, the MAC’s former director of reliever airports, likewise told PRM after Super Bowl LII that the NFL did not charge for the reservation system.  He said that the NFL designed the system after problems arose at an earlier Super Bowl held in Phoenix.  “No reservation system [was] in place” for the Phoenix game, he wrote in a January 2019 e-mail message.

“There was parking chaos on the ground [for the private planes] because no one knew the schedule of arrivals or departures, and the air traffic control system was getting overwhelmed.

“The NFL had incentive to develop a better system so [their] VIPs (owners and big sponsors) were not subject to excessive delays,” he added.

The MAC, a public agency, coordinates aviation services in the Twin Cities, and oversees a series of smaller, reliever airports.  The six reliever airports in the Twin Cities – where many private planes arrived for the Super Bowl in 2018 – included Flying Cloud Airport, Holman Field in downtown St. Paul, and the Anoka County-Blaine Airport.

NFL point person central to Super Bowl aviation planning

As the game approached, e-mails indicated that Hernandez – the NFL’s point person – made adjustments to the reservation system.  In an October 2017 e-mail, Hernandez set out directions for Holman Field in downtown St. Paul: “Adjust the departure slots between 16:00 – 22:30 [4 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday].  12 slots per hour, one every 5 minutes.”

The importance of Hernandez to the Super Bowl event appeared to be understood by local officials in Minnesota who were planning for the game.

Hernandez “is coming to town the week of December 12 and he is a vital part of any discussion we have.  Let’s hear from him on availability then go from there,” Phil Burke, a MAC official, wrote in a November 2016 e-mail to FAA officials and Super Bowl organizers in Minnesota.

“OK,” replied Jake Miller in an email later that same month.  Miller was the vice president of operations for the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee.  “I have got things finally finalized with Jose’s trip and below is what he would like to accomplish while he is in town,” he wrote.

The documents meanwhile also showed that local officials used Hernandez’ presence to complain about the FAA’s regulations being imposed for the game.

“I believe the FAA is trying to dictate our on the ground operation and manage operations on the ground and in the air,” Brian Bourbeau, a Premier Jet official at Flying Cloud Airport, said in a June 2017 e-mail.  Bourbeau told Hernandez that his company and the other FBOs at the airport “can better assist the NFL” by “handling a larger amount of traffic here at Flying Cloud.

“I look forward to hearing from you and appreciate all your effort Jose!” he added.

Hernandez then wrote an email to Sean Fortier, a FAA official.  “Let me know your availability” to talk to Bourbeau, Hernandez wrote.

FAA had doubts about its own system

The FAA documents also indicated that the NFL’s reservation system was being used at a time when FAA officials expressed  doubts about the agency’s own reservation system.

In a July 2018 e-mail, Mara, the FAA official based in Minneapolis, said the FAA’s own reservation program “has issues” and added that if “pilots are not willing to ‘play nice’, it doesn’t work very well.”  In an e-mail a month later – six months after the Super Bowl was held in Minnesota – Mara added that “the FAA’s [program] has many flaws.”

He added that the FAA system “does not limit the number of times a crew can schedule a flight.  Therefore, if they are not sure what time they want to arrive/depart, they can put in an unlimited number of reservations.  This would limit the availability for other operators to schedule useable slots.”

Another FAA official appeared to agree.  In a September 2018 e-mail message, the FAA’s Michael Chambers wrote that the federal agency’s own system was faulty, and added that it could be “easily ‘gamed.’ “

For the FAA – which controls the airspace — the NFL system was an integral part of making sure the aircraft congestion surrounding the Super Bowl was manageable, and that private planes had space to park once they were on the ground. (The NFL reservation system was only used for private aircraft; scheduled commercial flights – such as those on Delta and American Airlines – were not subject to the system).

Meanwhile, the FAA’s flight restrictions for the Super Bowl were wide-reaching.  A FAA operational impact statement covered six days – including three days before, and two days after the game – and affected not only Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport but also 23 smaller, surrounding airports.  The airports ranged from the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport north of the Twin Cities to the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport in Eau Claire, WI to the Albert Lea Municipal Airport in southern Minnesota.

“Essentially, the FAA sets the hourly acceptance rate for each airport, which is input into the reservation system,” Schmidt told PRM in an e-mail.  “During Super Bowl activities a ‘prior permission required’ (PPR) flight restriction is widely disseminated to the aviation community.  That means a reservation must be made with the airport before flying into the area.

“The NFL’s reservation system will not allow the hourly acceptance rate or the total airport capacity to be exceeded.  The program automatically relays the arrival/departure information to the FAA,” he added.

Private reservation system considered for 2019 Final Four

After the Super Bowl in Minnesota, at least one FAA official pushed for a similar reservation system as Minneapolis prepared  to host the college basketball Final Four tournament in 2019.  “We can go without a program, but my fear is that it will turn out like the [Phoenix] super bowl issue from years back,” the FAA’s Mara wrote in a September 2018 e-mail.  “I’m reluctant to take a stance that we can manage the traffic volume without some kind of program.  I think that could be an ugly event.”  MAC officials were told to expect 500 private aircraft for the Final Four, as opposed to the Super Bowl’s 1500 aircraft.

For the Final Four, the MAC ultimately developed and used its own general aviation reservation system.  A MAC spokesperson told PRM that it did not charge for it.  

But FAA emails show that some airport officials complained about using a reservation system for the Final Four in Minneapolis, or else wanted to limit its use.  “We want to limit it to the two 24-hour periods” during the tournament, Mike Wilson, a MAC official, wrote in a January 2019 e-mail.

Even Mara conceded that there were complaints about how the system had been used for the Super Bowl.  “The [local airport] managers found that they had to do a lot of work with it during the Super Bowl for their locally based tenants and don’t want to be that tied down by it again,” he wrote in December 2018 e-mail.