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Big Red Business: Private jet access for Husker coaches will get a boost

Air Nebraska is ready for takeoff.

The next time Scott Frost and his staff need to criss-cross the country on a recruiting trip, they’ll likely be on a cozy Gulfstream or Cessna private jet or charter that is part of the athletic department’s new “Husker Air Fleet.”

One of the new program’s goals is to help offset the $971,000 the athletic department spent on flights over the last year to recruit just for football, volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball. Of that total, $700,000 was spent on private flights, while $261,000 covered tickets on commercial flights, the athletic department said, based on 2017 data.

Nebraska’s athletic department told HuskerOnline in exclusive interviews that the new program allows donors to provide:

*Private planes that meet aircraft, maintenance, pilot and insurance standards.

*Flight hours, such as through fractional ownership or jet card hours. Fractional ownership costs include the number of hours flown, but also some recurring costs of owning a share of a small jet. In general, a jet card allows more of a pay-as-you-go service, without many of the other partial ownership costs.

Nebraska's Athletic Department has introduced a new program that will allow boosters to donate their private jets to Husker coaches in exchange for tax write-offs or donor priority points.
Nebraska's Athletic Department has introduced a new program that will allow boosters to donate their private jets to Husker coaches in exchange for tax write-offs or donor priority points. (Associated Press)

To give you a general idea of the cost, 25 hours of flight time on a private jet ranges from about $145,000 to $165,000 plus taxes and other fees, according to industry data.

*Money to the Nebraska Foundation to pay for air expenses.

In return, donors can choose from receiving 100 percent tax deductibility on their contribution or priority points and awards that range from invitations to private events and ticket opportunities to Cornhusker athletic events.

“We are pleased to move forward with the Husker Air Fleet,” athletic director Bill Moos said in a statement. Private air travel, he added, is a vital, but costly, tool for recruiting, particularly in a program “that recruits nationally and has coaches who may need to travel from coast to coast in a short period of time.”

Like many athletic programs, Nebraska has relied in recent years used a mix of commercial and charter services -- and car rentals -- for coaches on the recruiting trail or other department-sanctioned business.

While generous donors at many schools nationwide have typically made their private jets available for athletic department business in exchange for royalties and perks, athletic department officials have said that has not been the case at Nebraska, at least in recent years. All private charters have been booked through charter companies, not donors, the department noted in an August 2017 HuskerOnline story.

Nor has Nebraska followed about 20 schools around the country, including Ohio State, Penn State, and Purdue, that have purchased or leased jets for recruiting purposes.

The Husker Air Fleet is part of a broader effort launched last fall to attract more financial support to Nebraska athletics from large and smaller donors. Over the next five years, Nebraska hopes to increase the number of regular donors in the Huskers Athletic Fund to 22,000 from 16,700 currently.

Which brings up one of the wealthiest of all, Omaha billionaire Warren Buffett. He is one of the biggest players in fractional jet purchases through his ownership of NetJets.

Has Buffett stepped up to support the Husker Air Fleet? You would have to assume there have at least been conversations.

Moos and other senior athletic department officials would not disclose any names of individuals or corporations that may be writing checks or providing aircraft.

However, Moos, said that “we already had great feedback from donors on the Husker Air Fleet program, and with the program now in place, I am confident we will have more individuals willing to step forward and help in this manner.”

Nebraska used 263 private jet hours for coaches in 2017. Every 25 hours of jet usage cost between $145,000 to $165,000.
Nebraska used 263 private jet hours for coaches in 2017. Every 25 hours of jet usage cost between $145,000 to $165,000. (Associated Press)

How did Nebraska's flight plan come together? 

John Jentz, the athletic department’s chief financial officer, said earlier last year that he planned to explore options on how best to fit the programs’ growing air travel needs while at the same time, keeping those costs under control. Those steps included reviewing charter services and better scheduling arrangements with other conference schools.

Toward that end, Jentz said in late December that the department consulted with several institutions at peer schools, as well as national industry experts, “to design a platform that included best practices for aircraft maintenance, pilot, and insurance standards.”

How will maintenance be handled when a jet needs to be serviced? What about having pilots at the ready if a coach needs a quick turnaround flight from Phoenix to Lincoln and on to South Dakota? Insurance and liability are huge concerns.

Nebraska has averaged 230 total hours of flight time for recruiting football, volleyball, and men’s and women’s basketball over the past five years, according to a document prepared by the athletic department for donors that outlines the new air program. In 2017, flight time by coaches were significantly higher, accounting for 263 hours as Frost assumed the football head coaching position with recruiting hitting the December early-signing period home stretch.

“The growing need to recruit across the country is the main purpose,” of Husker Air Fleet, the document said.

Of Nebraska’s 2019 football recruiting targets, about 70 percent live outside the 500-mile radius of Lincoln, the athletic department said.

The Lincoln airport offers just direct flights to four different cities.
The Lincoln airport offers just direct flights to four different cities.

Flight options 

If you want to fly from Lincoln’s municipal airport to visit a recruit in Georgia, Alabama, New Jersey or Vancouver, Wash., connections are not easy. The Lincoln airport currently offers only four direct flights -- to Chicago, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and Denver, the athletic department notes in its summary describing the Husker Air Fleet. (The summary does not include flights from Omaha.)

Still, Big Ten competitors Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Iowa all have at least 12 direct flight options through local airports within 25 miles of campus. For example, Michigan’s coaches have more than 100 direct flight options; Ohio State has 40; Wisconsin 19; and Iowa 12, the athletic department said.

What that means is that all those additional flights provide for more efficient travel schedules when coaches are recruiting.

The numbers game

If Nebraska’s air program takes flight successfully, it will help reduce the athletic department’s operating expenses at a time when the entire university system is facing legislative pressure to cut budgets.

In the athletic department’s current fiscal year, operating expenses, including travel, are budgeted at $63.04 million. That’s up about $4.08 million from the previous 2017-2018 fiscal year. More current numbers were unavailable.

Consider it a big bookkeeping victory if Nebraska is able to secure enough donations to cover some or all of the approximately $1 million in air travel costs.

And for donors?

There are two options to receive credit for their air fleet donation.

*100 percent tax deductibility, though no priority points.

*Priority points -- though no tax deduction. Three points will be awarded for every $100 cash or gift in kind donation in the current year; one priority point for each $100 cash or gift in kind donated in previous years.

In addition, donors who contribute at least $10,000 to the Husker Air Fleet will also receive an exclusive invitation to private events with coaches.


Steve Rosen writes about the business of sports for HuskerOnline. Questions, comments, story ideas? Reach Steve at sbrosen1030@gmail.com.