Samantha Ponder has spent nearly a decade crisscrossing the U.S. building her sportscasting career — first as a single woman, then while dating long-distance, and now as a mother of three children under 5 who often accompany her on the road.
If that sounds tough, Sam would agree. One thing that's made it all a little easier: her airline of choice, Delta.
"I have a real affinity for Delta because I feel like my address was basically a Delta gate for a lot of my adult life," she said.
Sam, the host of ESPN's Sunday NFL Countdown, and a former host of College GameDay and former sideline reporter for college football and basketball, said she appreciates the dependability Delta offers, as well as friendly customer experience from employees who greet her by name and are kind to her kids.
As Sam kicks off her second season hosting Sunday NFL Countdown, she spoke to Delta News Hub about life as a road warrior and how she juggles a demanding career with the needs of her young family.
Delta News Hub: Talk about your evolution as a traveler — when did you become a true frequent flier?
SP: I grew up with parents who had a passion for traveling, so we spent time in different countries doing service projects. So, I was familiar with flying, but as soon as I finished college in 2009 I basically lived on an airplane. For a while, I didn't actually have a home — I just kept some stuff at my parents' house in Phoenix because I was on the road pretty much all the time. I was on four flights a week, sometimes more, through football and basketball season. Then after college basketball season was over I would do NBA playoffs, so I basically lived on a plane.
Delta became a huge part of my dating and marriage experience because my husband, Christian, and I dated long distance. He lived in Minnesota as the quarterback for the Minnesota Vikings at the time, and I was in Austin. He would fly down every Monday, his off day, and that's basically how we dated. Then when we got married and I moved to Minneapolis, I flew Delta every week.
Then nearly a year into our marriage, I had my daughter — we were still living in Minneapolis and I was still flying about 4-5 days a week — so I started bringing her to work with me. She flew over a hundred flights before she was 1. I have a real affinity for Delta because I feel like my address was basically a Delta gate for a lot of my adult life.
How has flying changed from when you were single to now a mom with three young kids?
It's totally different because I used to see plane time as work time. But after Scout was born, I started thinking as the time on the plane as our time together. We started flying when she was 2 weeks old. At 5 weeks, she was flying four days a week. It wasn't ideal, but that was the only way that I could do the job I love, and I wasn't going to leave my daughter at home, so she was a great little traveler and, now as a 4-year-old, still is. We also have two behind her – a 1-year-old and a 5-week-old, so everybody is getting used to traveling.
You mentioned your flying with Delta became more frequent when you started dating your husband. Why did you choose Delta?
It was the best option for us living in Minneapolis, especially because we were going through Atlanta with college football. Now that we live in New York part time and Phoenix part time, we always try to fly Delta. For me, it's a comfort level with a company that I found could be really dependable in an industry where you normally can't depend on things. I just got really comfortable with the way the flight attendants treated us when I have kids with me, and with the whole experience you all provide in the air and on the ground. I just feel like it's my comfort zone: flying with Delta.
Going from one to three kids in less than four years must have been a challenge. Do you have an in-flight routine?
Just don't think everything has to go perfectly because it's not going to. One of the things that I do is I have a "stretch-all-the-snacks" rule. On the plane, it's a free-for-all with food. I've found that food is the way to get small children through flights. We fly cross country a lot and they eat all the snacks and that keeps them busy on the plane, especially for kids that aren't really old enough to use an iPad or watch a movie. I used to bring toys with me, but realized quickly they're throwing them on the ground, so food is the way to go.
The other thing I do is, I am usually the last person boarding the plane, especially when I'm traveling with all three. I just wait until everybody else is on board and then I bring the minimum amount of stuff, like I said I pretty much stock up on snacks and that's what we have on the plane. And then we get off last.
What are some Delta attributes or offerings that are valuable to you as a mom?
Little things make a big difference. When I was flying four to five times a week, people at the gate or at check-in knew my name and my daughter, and would offer to help. There were even times when they would give us a ride to our plane if we might miss our flight. Things like that, where you just feel like you're not a number anymore: calling you by your name, showing you where to go and holding a stroller while I'm taking the baby out. All that stuff makes a difference, in terms of me not feeling like I was totally on my own in a strange place.
The Sky Clubs have also been huge for me because when you travel as much as I do, you know there's going to be delays and weather issues especially flying in the winter during football season. I can't tell you how much time I've spent in Sky Clubs across the country and that has been a huge help.
What are some travel tips you can provide to that business customer who's always on the go?
For me, packing is huge because I don't normally check a bag. I always bring the minimum especially if I'm flying to a big city. I also pack in the same colors so I don't complicate things. If I'm not traveling with kids, another thing I do is to spend time doing things I would do at home — so if I haven't exercised that day I will just keep walking around the airport. And now, especially at bigger airports, you have so many more healthy options for food and areas you can charge your phone and get work done. So I try to not think of the airport as this 'other place' but as an extension of my regular day because you kind of have to do that if you travel as much as I do.
How has ESPN's support helped you as a working mom?
I made a personal decision that while my kids are young, I'm never gone for more than two days. That also means if that's a longer trip, it's now a family trip. For me, this has really been possible because of ESPN — when I do bring a kid, it's not a huge deal and they've embraced my family so I can feel good about my job and not feel guilty when I'm away from my family.
During College GameDay, I never asked the company, 'Hey, can I bring my daughter?' They just embraced her as their little niece or granddaughter. That environment was so helpful to me because I would have been so stressed as a new mom, traveling four days a week, being away from my child or feeling like she was not welcome. They were amazing and the fans were amazing.
On trips when you don't travel with the kids, how do you prepare to be away from them?
I don't know how people did it before FaceTime. At my oldest daughter's age everything is about, 'Do you see me? Do you see me?' I'm so aware of that and always want her to feel seen. Also, wherever I go I make sure, even if it's the smallest thing, to bring back something specifically for her — because she's the only one aware of what's going on and that I'm gone. Just something small that she can keep so she knows wherever I am she's a part of it. For a while I would bring something of hers with me and take a picture of it so she can see it and feel like I brought a piece of her there.
When you have other choices, what keeps you coming back to Delta?
I'm a very practical person, and especially as a mom, I want a company that is super dependable, convenient and friendly, and that's the experience I've had with Delta. As a mom you're trying to create an environment that provides some stability, you want to align yourself with a company that is as dependable as you can find and that's been my experience with Delta. Plus, they are kind to my kids and that's a big deal when you're already a little stressed. People knowing your name and being kind to children, that's a big deal for me.