Sun Valley Conference 2022: When private jets touch down in small Idaho town

HAILEY, Idaho — Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, flies in a Gulfstream G650. So do Jeff Bezos and Dan Schulman, CEO of PayPal. The planes, about 470 of which are in operation, retail for about $75 million each.

Most days, those planes are scattered, 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 lane alongside the jagged hills of Idaho’s Wood River Valley.

The occasion is the annual Sun Valley Conference, a shoulder-rubbing bonanza put on by the secretive investment bank Allen & Company. Known as “summer camp for billionaires,” the conference kicks off this year on Tuesday and draws industry titans and their families, some of whom are watched over by local nannies bound by confidentiality agreements. In between organized walks and fly fishing at previous meetings, there have been sessions on creativity, climate change and immigration reform.

For decades, in these isolated meetings, CEOs and board chairmen have struck deals that have shaped the television we watch, the news we consume and the products we buy. It’s where, near the 9th hole of the golf course, the CEO of General Electric expressed his interest in selling NBC to Comcast. It’s where Bezos met with 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 discussions.

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 tycoons get in and out smoothly.

In the months leading up to the conference, Mr. Pomeroy prepares to play a high-stakes game of 3D Tetris with multi-million dollar private jets as attendees travel to Sun Valley, a resort town with a year-round population of 1,800. year.

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 industry data firm. They ranged from tiny propeller planes to long-winged commercial jets. By comparison, two weeks ago, when Mr. Pomeroy gave me a brief tour of the airport, only 44 flights took off or landed there during 24 hours, according to the data firm.

“This is empty right now,” Pomeroy said, gently steering his white 2014 Ford Explorer (what he calls his “mobile command center”) past a newly paved strip of asphalt. “But in the summer, and during the event in particular, there are planes parked everywhere here.”

Like the conference activities, elements of the trip are shrouded in secrecy. Many planes that fly are registered to obscure owners and limited liability companies, some with only winks of reference to their passengers. The plane that transported Mr. Kraft last year, for example, is registered as “Airkraft One Trust,” according to Federal Aviation Administration records. The plane Bezos flew in is registered to Poplar Glen, a Seattle company.

Representatives for Kraft and Bezos declined to comment. Bezos is not expected to perform at Sun Valley this year, according to an advance guest list obtained by The New York Times.

Mr. Pomeroy plans well in advance to deal with the heavy air traffic generated by the conference, which he obliquely refers to as “the annual flight event.” Without proper organization, flocks of private jets could pile into the airspace around Friedman, creating delays and diversions as pilots burn precious fuel.

That was the case at the 2016 conference, which coincided with Mr. Pomeroy’s first week on the job. That year, some aircraft circled or stayed on the runway for more than 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 to the taxiway.”

After that episode, Mr. Pomeroy recruited Greg Dyer, a former FAA district manager, to help clear the runway. The two coordinated with an FAA center in Salt Lake City to schedule flights, sometimes 300 to 500 miles out of Sun Valley. For some flights, staging begins before the planes take off.

“Before, it looked like an attack — it was just planes coming from all points of the compass, all trying to get here at the same time,” said Dyer, an airport consultant at Jviation-Woolpert.

Last year, delays were kept to a maximum of 20 minutes and no commercial travelers missed connecting flights due to air traffic caused by the conference, Pomeroy said.

When tycoons are forced to spin in the air, they often loiter in grand style. Buyers willing to shell out tens of millions for a high-end private plane are unlikely to resist paying an extra $650,000 to equip the plane with Wi-Fi, said Lee Mindel, one of the founders of SheltonMindel, an architecture firm. who has designed the interiors of Gulfstream and Bombardier private jets. Some homeowners, he said, have opted for custom cutlery from Muriel Grateau in Paris, V’Soske rugs or other luxury features.

“If you have to ask how much it costs, you really can’t afford to do that,” Mindel said.

During the pandemic, when business travel was curtailed due to restrictions, corporate excursions 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 might be cheaper to compensate CEOs with plane rides than to pay 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 take over the world,’” Mr. Yermack said.

The excess 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 created by planes approaching Friedman Memorial Airport.

To address the complaints, Mr. Pomeroy and the Friedman Memorial Airport Authority reduced flights between 11 pm and 7 am and limited the number of takeoffs and landings from the north, over the small town of Hailey.

Before the conference, Mr. 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 during this event are respectful of our program and our community, only a few operators who openly ignore our program, or are negligent in learning about our program, leave a negative impression on all of us,” said Mr. Pomeroy wrote this year.

Allen & Company’s stinginess over some details of the conference extends to the airport. But Mr. Pomeroy and his team get enough information to conclude when the tycoons will arrive and are about to leave town.

When the talk wraps up next week, Mr. Pomeroy will begin the arduous task of driving the corporate titans out of Idaho. Often that means closing the airport briefly to arrivals as they rush out for an hour.

As the last planes prepare to leave, Pomeroy said, he and his team breathe a sigh of relief.

“After that, I’m ready to go down the river to fly fish for a day or two,” he said.

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