This column was originally published April 11, 2007
DOING 595 MPH SOMEWHERE OVER TEXAS — He is surrounded by fine leather, lacquered mahogany tables, doors and walls, and brass bathroom and shower fixtures. And now his steward is about to serve a gourmet three-course meal — with a choice of fine wines, of course.
So Wayne Huizenga is feeling pretty good up here, 37,000 feet in the air, where he can look down on the world from a camera mounted below the fuselage of his private jet.
This jet is his perch, and it is his baby.
The biggest jet in Huizenga’s fleet of three planes and a helicopter, it is the one he flew around the country and even to Costa Rica to interview candidates when the Miami Dolphins were looking for a head coach. It made national headlines when news organizations started tracking it on Flightaware.com to get a clue about Miami’s interview plans.
“Yeah, we blocked you guys after a while,” Huizenga says, laughing.
When the jet landed at Bakersfield Airport in California few weeks ago, it showed free-agent linebacker Joey Porter exactly how serious the Dolphins were about adding him to their defense.
“It’s a 737,” Porter said. “Our airport doesn’t ever see those. That right there said they were serious. Mr. H. flew in the plane and I’m looking for a whole lot of people to get off, and I see two guys get off this big 737.
“They weren’t going to waste that gas to come visit me for nothing, so I knew we were heading in the right direction when I got the visit.”
The plane visits any place Huizenga wants it to. It doesn’t belong to one of his handful of companies. It belongs to him.
So when Huizenga went to the NFL owners’ meetings in Phoenix last week, he and other Dolphins personnel rode on the plane.
That wasn’t necessarily unique. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones also arrived in his private plane, the one with the blue Lone Star on the tail. And the Houston contingent did the same thing on a private jet decorated with Texans insignia.
But parked next to Huizenga’s honkin’ Southwest Airlines-looking bird, those aircraft look like Pintos parked next to a Rolls-Royce.
So what does Huizenga think when 737 Whiskey Hotel (the jet’s FAA call name) rolls up next to those other aircraft, showing off that gigantic Dolphins helmet on the tail, and giving other owners a case of jet envy?
“None of those guys have four public companies to worry about,” Huizenga says.
Huizenga has flown private jets for nearly 30 years. Ask him the last time he went through airport security and he pauses only for a second.
“It had to be 1984,” he says.
That was about the time the Dolphins owner realized personal jet travel was not only a luxury but also a business tool.
“When you’re doing business and the other guy says, ‘The only time I can meet with you is tomorrow before breakfast,’ you have to be there and commercial airlines aren’t going to get you there,” Huizenga says.
“The plane is a differential advantage,” Dolphins Enterprises Chief Financial Officer Bill Pierce says while chewing on an inch-thick, 16-ounce filet that’s part of today’s on-board entree.
“When we’re negotiating and we tell people we’re leaving, they know we’re serious because the plane is always waiting.”
Huizenga boarded his plane Christmas morning 2004 to fly to Baton Rouge, La., to get Nick Saban signed as Miami’s new coach.
“He told me he wasn’t ready to give me a decision because he had given his players his word that they would be the first to know if he was leaving or not,” Huizenga says. “He said, ‘I gave them my word,’ and I said, ‘That’s cool. I understand.’ I respected the fact he was sticking to his word.”
Huizenga smiles and abandons the subject there, avoiding the irony of Saban’s departure to coach Alabama after he said he wouldn’t.
There are few subjects that are not addressed on Huizenga’s plane. He evaluated coaching candidates here. He studies renditions of the $150 million remodeling he’s doing to Dolphin Stadium. The plane can play six different movies on different screens throughout the cabin, and now Huizenga is enjoying a tape of the carnival he hosted at his flight hangar during Super Bowl week.
A flight on Huizenga Airlines also includes steward John Wener serving drinks and cooking meals. This night, his steak dinner was accompanied with carved turkey and gravy, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach and assorted steamed vegetables, a Caesar salad and a silver platter of fresh baked chocolate chip cookies and strawberries.
It took a year for the plane’s interior to be designed, customized and arranged in a design Huizenga likes.
The layout situates the dining room forward of the master bathroom -- the one with the shower. Dinner tonight is served in a dining room that seats eight, somewhere over Louisiana.
This plane sleeps 16 comfortably, two in quarters that double as a card room next to the bathroom.
“Originally, we had a gym back there, but nobody ever used it, so we converted it,” Huizenga says. “Now you can play some cards and have fun back there.”
Amid all the luxury, Huizenga can be introspective. He is 69 years old and knows he’s not immortal.
“My wife and I pray every night,” Huizenga says. “Nobody is going to be around forever. But I feel strong, I don’t feel old. I still enjoy going into the office every morning and doing deals, and I want to continue doing that. But none of that is more important than being healthy and having a good wife and a good family.”
The future of Huizenga’s family is set even when he is no longer around. Each of Huizenga’s four adult children owns one of their father’s companies.
But Huizenga is hopeful the crown jewel of his empire -- the Dolphins -- doesn’t create a rift when he’s gone.
“I’ve seen it happen to other families where one of the kids isn’t happy because one of the other kids is running things,” he says. “I don’t want that happening with my kids.”
It is a legitimate concern but likely not one that is bigger than Huizenga, who even in a world of wood-trimmed pull handles on emergency doors is no coddled individual.
“Remember,” he says, “I started out driving a garbage truck.”
Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero