With some luck and last-minute scrambling, Delta Air Lines managed to step in at the eleventh hour to fly the Nigerian men’s soccer team to Brazil in time for its first match in the Olympics Thursday evening.
The team had been stranded in Atlanta for several days after a communications mix-up, according to Atlanta-based Delta. The team had been training in Atlanta, where Nigeria won the gold medal in soccer at the Olympics 20 years ago.
The problem, according to the founder of United Soccer Africa, was that “the team had assumed it could simply buy plane tickets to Rio at the last minute — just like Nigerians do in their home country to book travel,” the Associated Press reported. “They then encountered a crush of travelers and lack of flights at the busy Atlanta airport.”
An attempt to arrange a charter failed when the plane was deemed too small, according to Delta.
Delta said it got a call late Wednesday and initially determined it couldn’t accommodate the team on regular flights without displacing other passengers.
But the airline discovered it had an NBA charter plane available to fly the group of more than 30 people, and arranged to fly the team “with no request for payment,” according to Delta.
Most of Delta’s planes are not equipped in the manner required by regulations to fly to Latin America, but the available Boeing 757 was. The same plane will fly the U.S. men’s basketball team home from Brazil.
The plane left Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport about 8 a.m. Thursday morning to arrive in Manaus, Brazil, just hours before Nigeria’s 9 p.m. match with Japan on Thursday evening.
Delta charters Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, NCAA, NBA and NFL teams, often with specially-equipped planes and high-end service. Lucrative sports charters have been a key target market for Delta in recent years.