HAILEY, Idaho – Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots, flies a Gulfstream G650. Just like Jeff Bezos and Dan Schulman, the CEO of PayPal. The jets, of which there are about 470 in service, sell for about $75 million each.
Most days, those planes are scattered, carrying captains of industry to gatherings around the world. But for a week in July, some of them congregate on a single 100-foot-wide asphalt track next to the jagged hills of Idaho’s Wood River Valley.
The occasion is the annual Sun Valley conference, a pat on the back hosted by secretive investment bank Allen & Co. Known as “billionaires’ summer camp,” the conference kicks off on Tuesday this year and draws industry titans and their families — some of them guarded by local babysitters bound by non-disclosure agreements. In between organized walks and fly fishing at previous gatherings, there have been sessions on creativity, climate change and immigration reform.
For decades, during these private meetings, CEOs and board chairmen have made deals that have shaped the TV we watch, the news we consume, and the products we buy. It’s true, near the ninth hole of the golf course, the head of General Electric expressed an interest in selling NBC to Comcast. It’s where Bezos met the owner of The Washington Post before agreeing to buy the paper, and where Disney pursued a plan to buy ABC — with Warren Buffett at the center of the discussions.
It’s also the biggest week of the year for Chris Pomeroy, the Friedman Memorial Airport director and the guy who makes sure all the moguls come and go smoothly.
In the months before the conference begins, Pomeroy prepares to play a high-stakes 3D game of Tetris using multi-million dollar private jets as attendees travel to Sun Valley, a year-round seaside town of 1,800 residents.
During a 24-hour period last year when the conference began, more than 300 flights passed through Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, a small town near Sun Valley, according to data from Flightradar24, an industrial data company. They ranged from small propeller planes to long-wing commercial jets. In comparison, two weeks ago, when Pomeroy gave me a short tour of the airport, only 44 flights took off or landed in 24 hours, according to the data company.
“This is empty now,” Pomeroy said, steering his white 2014 Ford Explorer (what he calls his “mobile command center”) smoothly along a strip of freshly paved tarmac. “But in the summer, and especially during the event, planes are parked everywhere here.”
Like the activities of the conference, elements of the journey there are shrouded in secrecy. Many jets that fly in are registered with obscure owners and limited liability companies, some with just winking references to their passengers. For example, the jet that carried Kraft last year is registered under “Airkraft One Trust,” according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration. The plane Bezos flew in is registered to Poplar Glen, a Seattle firm.
Kraft and Bezos representatives declined to comment. Bezos is not expected to appear in Sun Valley this year, according to a guest list obtained in advance by The New York Times.
Pomeroy plans to deal well in advance with the intense air traffic generated by the conference, which he obliquely refers to as “the annual fly-in event.” Without proper organization, swarms of private jets can pile up in the skies around Friedman, causing delays and diversions as pilots burn precious fuel.
Such was the case for the 2016 conference, which coincided with Pomeroy’s first week of work. That year, some planes circled overhead or waited more than an hour and a half on the tarmac until the airspace and runway were cleared.
“I literally saw planes lining up to take off from the north end of the field, almost all the way to the south end of the field,” Pomeroy said, referring to the 7,550-foot runway. “Tail to nose, all the way up the taxiway.”
After that episode, Pomeroy enlisted Greg Dyer, a former district manager with the FAA, to help clear the tarmac. The two coordinated with an FAA hub in Salt Lake City to align flights, sometimes 300 to 500 miles outside Sun Valley. For some flights, staging begins before the planes take off.
“It used to look like an attack — it was just planes coming from all over the world and trying to get here all at the same time,” said Dyer, an airport consultant for Jviation-Woolpert.
Last year, delays were limited to a maximum of 20 minutes, and not a single commercial traveler missed connecting flights due to the air traffic caused by the conference, Pomeroy said.
When moguls are forced to circle in mid-air, they often hang out in great style. Buyers willing to pay tens of millions for a high-end private jet probably won’t hesitate to shell out an additional $650,000 to equip the plane with Wi-Fi, said Lee Mindel, one of the founders of SheltonMindel, an architectural firm that develops the interiors of private jets Gulfstream and Bombardier. Some owners, he said, have opted for custom cutlery from Muriel Grateau in Paris, V’Soske rugs or other luxury features.
“If you have to ask what it costs, you really can’t afford it,” Mindel said.
During the pandemic, as commercial travel slowed due to restrictions, corporate outings increased among a subset of executives who didn’t want to be held back, said David Yermack, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He added that in the long run, it may be cheaper to compensate CEOs with jet travel than paying them in cash.
“I think it was Napoleon who said, ‘When I realized that people would give their lives for little pieces of colored ribbon, I knew I could conquer the world,'” Yermack said.
The abundance of flights certainly raises practical concerns. Residents of Hailey, as well as nearby Ketchum and Sun Valley, have complained in the past about the noise caused by the jets zooming into Friedman Memorial Airport.
To address the complaints, Pomeroy and the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority have restricted flights between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m. and limited takeoffs and landings from the north, over the town of Hailey.
Before the conference, Pomeroy sends a letter to incoming pilots about what to expect, warning them to keep noise to a minimum.
“While the vast majority of users at this event respect our program and our community, only a few operators who blatantly ignore our program, or are negligent in informing us about our program, leave a negative impression on us,” said Pomeroy. wrote this year.
Allen & Co.’s stinginess about some conference details extends to the airport. But Pomeroy and his team gain enough information to conclude when the moguls will arrive and be about to leave town.
When the smoozing is over next week, Pomeroy will begin the grueling task of luring the business titans out of Idaho. Often that means the airport has to be closed briefly for arrivals, while they delay departures for an hour.
As the last jets get ready to leave, Pomeroy said, he and his team are breathing a sigh of relief.
“After that I’m ready to hit the river for a few days of serious fly fishing,” he said.
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