July 14, 2008

Pilots Get to Network While Bosses Do the Same

By Tim Arango and Andrew Ross Sorkin

As dusk settled on the Pioneer Mountains last Thursday, the party was just beginning: a group of close to 100 people with nametags, mostly men, mingled, drank beer and told stories of their day on the golf course or indulging other local recreations like fly fishing and skeet shooting.

A staff, in kitschy red Cowboy-get ups, catered to the assemblage - and not a Murdoch, a Bill Gates or a Warren Buffett was in sight.

For 26 years, the boutique New York investment bank Allen & Co. has shuttled media chieftains, technology pioneers, Hollywood studio executives - even the occasional movie star - to this mountainside retreat for several days of schmoozing and recreation, and for 26 years the pilots and flight crews that cater to the wealthy and powerful have been enjoying pretty much the same routine.

"We live for this," said Don Bonta, the lead pilot and director of aviation for Nike, who flew Philip Knight, Nike's co-founder, to Sun Valley. "It's a very fun event."

Bonta, who manages seven pilots employed by the sneaker giant and who said some of his crew had recently completed trips with executives to Shanghai and Brazil, explained that it is rare for corporate pilots and flight crews to have down time in a place filled with their brethren.

"It's nice to know we'll get three days to relax," he said. Bonta said his friends had been white-water rafting and skeet shooting, and that he was considering driving the next morning to Stanley, a small town an hour-and-a-half away known for its idyllic mountainside lake.

Like the moguls themselves, the pilots and crews that transport the powerful are all acquainted.

"We all know each other," said Stephanie Peck, the lead flight attendant for Sony Aviation, motioning to the roughly 100 other people mingling by picnic benches, some of whom had made their way to the buffet table, piled high with ribs, chicken and coleslaw. "We see each other at the Grammys, the Oscars. But it's very unusual that all of us are together like this."

The barbecue at the Trail Creek Cabin or an event like it, has been hosted for 23 of the 26 years of the Allen & Co. conference by Melidee Wright, who runs Sun Valley Aviation, a local company that services private aircraft at nearby Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, Idaho.

"We started it 23 years ago when we decided to take the pilots to dinner," said Wright, flanked by a man wearing a name tag that read "Melidee's husband.""It just seemed to be a nice PR thing to do." That first dinner included about 20 pilots and was held at Warm Springs Ranch, a local restaurant, now shuttered, known for its wild trout.

The official guests of Allen & Co. stay in rooms, suites and condominiums at the Sun Valley Resort, and the pilots and flight attendants also bunk up in one place: the Best Western in Ketchum, Idaho, near the bars where Ernest Hemingway drank and ate.

When Peck, of Sony, arrived Tuesday afternoon she spent about two hours tending to the details of the return flight - like organizing catering - before she could relax.

But the life she chose means she can never fully relax; if some corporate emergency arises the schedule can change quickly. "If the chairman calls, we have to go," she said. "We are always on alert."

For this reason and among this crew of people, alcohol consumption is approached with caution. Each evening, including before this party, Peck and her cohorts check with corporate travel officials to make sure they are in the clear for a little fun.

The next afternoon, when Peck's flight back to New York was scheduled, there were about 80 corporate jets packed side-by-side at the local airport. In the years since Allen & Co.'s first conference here in 1982, corporate aircraft have gotten bigger, while the local airport's capacity to serve large jets has not kept up. No way would the Google co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, be able to land their Boeing 767 here.

"The challenge coming in this week is the traffic and the parking," said Bonta.

Originally published by The New York Times Media Group.

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