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Game day by GA

In terms of the pageantry, rivalries, and sheer insanity of the fans, college football is the closest thing the United States has to the fever of soccer in Europe and Latin America.

On any given Saturday in the fall, millions of fans attend games at stadiums massive and intimate on college campuses in 49 states (sorry, football fans in Alaska).

In addition to great stadiums and storied rivalries, the biggest and most successful programs also have something else in common—they are close to airports. College football’s Power Five conferences, the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pacific-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference, represent 65 top-tier programs. Among those schools, most are located within 15 minutes of an airport, and the farthest is only about 35 minutes from a full-service general aviation airport. That makes college football a great GA destination, no matter if the school is in College Park, Maryland, or College Station, Texas.

One of the centers of college football is in the South. The rivalries of the SEC are some of the biggest games of the year, and that makes for some busy nearby airports as well. At Easterwood Field in College Station, Texas, Astin Aviation Manager Zane Henderson said the staff goes from servicing an average of 20 or 30 aircraft a day to around 150 to 200 for a game day. Texas A&M University owns the airport, and the fixed-base operation is only a few miles from Kyle Field, the 102,733-seat home of the Aggies and "Home of the 12th Man." The stadium is the largest in the SEC, and the fourth-largest in North America. “It gets pretty chaotic,” he said.

At their recent peak, Astin Aviation serviced 338 aircraft for a game against powerhouse Alabama. Even early season nonconference games draw a crowd, and Astin serves everything from large business jets to 172s with the same fun atmosphere. They give away koozies, hats, pens, and shirts. Astin has partnered with a local brewery and winery, and passengers can even get a drink before they head to the stadium. Everyone can partake in a tailgate of hot dogs and chips. “It’s fun to be a part of it,” Henderson said.

Across the SEC in Athens, Georgia, the staff at the Athens-Ben Epps Airport also has a large influx of traffic on game days to cheer on the University of Georgia Bulldogs. Matt Elliott has worked there for 14 months, and he said a typical day may only bring a handful of airplanes to the area. But for games like last year’s battle against the University of Tennessee Volunteers, more than 100 will show up. Athens is a slightly different arrangement from Easterwood because the FBO is county owned. So while the service is superb (check out their ratings), you shouldn’t expect a bar to greet you upon arrival.

Elliott said to accommodate all that traffic the airport will close the shorter crosswind runway for parking. The rush starts on Thursday, and swells on Friday and into Saturday before the game. College football is steeped in tradition, and that goes for the people who attend games too. “We definitely have some familiar faces.” Many will fly in for every home game, and they know exactly where they are headed and when.

For any FBO the challenge is newcomers. At Astin Aviation Henderson said the goal is to get customers to where they want to be as quickly and as efficiently as possible. To that end they’ll help with rental cars or a hotel, and there’s a free shuttle that runs from the FBO to the stadium starting three hours prior to kickoff, and stopping three hours after the last seconds tick off the clock and the fans begin to file out of Kyle Field.

At both Athens and Easterwood, game days are an all-hands-on-deck affair. Between customer service reps, fueling operations, and shuttling pilots and passengers to far corners of the airports, it takes a dedicated team to execute the detailed game plan.

Despite the hard work, Elliott said it is fun to be around the airport when there is a home game and to be part of the celebration. “It’s always a good day to be a Dawg on game day,” he said. “The juju is good.”

University of Georgia NCAA football fans cheer on the Bulldogs during the opening kickoff at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia. Photo by David Tulis.

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