HAILEY, Idaho — New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft flies in a Gulfstream G650. The same goes for PayPal CEO Jeff Bezos and Dan Schulman. The jets, of which about 470 are in service, cost about $75 million each.
Most of the time, these planes are dispersed, ferrying captains of industry to meetings around the world. But for a week in July, some of them converge on a single, 100-foot-wide asphalt track beside the jagged hills of Idaho’s Wood River Valley.
The occasion is the annual Sun Valley Conference, a bonanza hosted by secretive investment bank Allen & Co. Known as “Summer Camp for Billionaires,” the conference kicks off this year on Tuesday and attracts titans of industry and their families. – some of which are monitored by local babysitters bound by non-disclosure agreements. Between organized hikes and fly fishing at past gatherings, there have been sessions on creativity, climate change and immigration reform.
For decades, in these isolated gatherings, CEOs and board chairs struck deals that shaped the TV we watch, the news we consume, and the products we buy. It was there, near the ninth hole of the golf course, the General Electric boss expressed interest in selling NBC to Comcast. It was there that Bezos met the owner of the Washington Post before agreeing to buy the newspaper, and where Disney pursued a plan to buy ABC – with Warren Buffett at the center of the talks.
It’s also the biggest week of the year for Chris Pomeroy, the manager of Friedman Memorial Airport and the man responsible for making sure all the bumps come and go smoothly.
In the months leading up to the start of the conference, Pomeroy prepares to play a high-stakes 3D game of Tetris with multimillion-dollar private jets as attendees travel to Sun Valley, an 1,800-mile resort town. residents all year round.
In a 24-hour period last year at the start of the conference, more than 300 flights passed through Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, a small town near Sun Valley, according to data from Flightradar24, a industry data company. They ranged from small propeller planes to long-winged commercial jets. By comparison, two weeks ago, when Pomeroy gave me a brief tour of the airport, only 44 flights took off or landed there in 24 hours, according to the data company.
“It’s empty right now,” Pomeroy said, smoothly driving his white 2014 Ford Explorer (what he calls his “mobile command center”) past a freshly paved strip of asphalt. “But in the summer, and during the event in particular, there are planes parked all over here.”
Much like the conference activities, the elements of the trip there are shrouded in secrecy. Many jets that fly are registered with obscure owners and limited liability companies, some with only winking references to their passengers. The jet that carried Kraft last year, for example, is registered under “Airkraft One Trust,” according to Federal Aviation Administration records. The plane Bezos flew in is registered with Poplar Glen, a Seattle company.
Representatives for Kraft and Bezos declined to comment. Bezos is not expected to appear at Sun Valley this year, according to a preliminary guest list obtained by The New York Times.
Pomeroy plans well in advance to deal with the intense air traffic generated by the conference, which he obliquely calls “the annual air event”. Without proper organization, groups of private jets could pile up in the airspace around Friedman, creating delays and diversions while pilots burn valuable fuel.
Such was the case for the 2016 conference, which coincided with Pomeroy’s first week on the job. That year, some aircraft hovered or sat on the tarmac for over an hour and a half, waiting for the airspace and runway to clear.
“I saw planes literally lined up to take off from the north end of the field almost to the south end of the field,” Pomeroy said, referring to the 7,550-foot runway. “From tail to nose, all the way down the taxiway.”
After that episode, Pomeroy enlisted Greg Dyer, a former FAA district manager, to help clear the tarmac. The two coordinated with an FAA hub in Salt Lake City to line up flights, sometimes 300 to 500 miles from Sun Valley. For some flights, the staging begins before the planes take off.
“Before, it looked like an attack – it was just planes coming from all directions, all trying to get here at once,” said Dyer, airport consultant for Jviation-Woolpert.
Last year, delays were kept to a maximum of 20 minutes and no business travelers missed connecting flights due to conference-caused air traffic, Pomeroy said.
When the bumps are forced to circle in the air, they often stroll in style. Buyers willing to shell out tens of millions for a high-end private plane are unlikely to balk at the extra $650,000 to outfit the plane with Wi-Fi, said Lee Mindel, one of the founders of SheltonMindel, an architectural firm that designed the interiors of Gulfstream and Bombardier private jets. Some owners, he said, opted for bespoke cutlery from Muriel Grateau in Paris, V’Soske rugs or other luxury items.
“If you have to ask what it costs, you really can’t afford to,” Mindel said.
During the pandemic, when business travel slowed due to restrictions, corporate getaways increased among a subset of executives who didn’t want to be held back, said David Yermack, a professor at the Stern School of Business at New York University. He added that it might be cheaper in the long run to pay CEOs with air travel than to pay them in cash.
“I think it was Napoleon who said, ‘When I realized people would give their lives for little pieces of colored ribbon, I knew I could conquer the world,'” Yermack said.
The glut of flights certainly raises practical concerns. Residents of Hailey, as well as nearby Ketchum and Sun Valley, have complained in the past about noise created by jets heading towards Friedman Memorial Airport.
To address the complaints, Pomeroy and the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority reduced flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. and limited the number of takeoffs and landings from the north over the small town of Hailey.
Prior to the conference, Pomeroy sends a letter to incoming pilots about what to expect, urging them to keep noise to a minimum.
“While the overwhelming majority of users at this event are respectful of our program and community, only a few operators who blatantly ignore our program, or neglect to learn about our program, leave a negative impression on us. all,” Pomeroy wrote this year.
Allen & Co.’s stinginess over certain conference details extends to the airport. But Pomeroy and his team get enough information to conclude when the bumps are coming and about to leave town.
When the schmoozing is done next week, Pomeroy will begin the arduous task of getting the corporate titans out of Idaho. Often that means briefly closing the airport to arrivals while they jostle departures for an hour.
As the last jets prepare to depart, Pomeroy said, he and his team breathe a sigh of relief.
“Then I’m ready to hit the river for some serious fly fishing for a day or two,” he said.
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