Celebrity Jet-Setters Ride the Shoulder Over Route 27
by neal santelmann
Whatever the drive and however fiery his or her ambition, there comes a time in every one-percenter’s life when he or she just has to... wait. And wait. And wait. It may be hard to imagine those nesting on the zillionaire’s list suffering a frustrating, everyman experience—least of all in the fabled playground of the exceptionally blessed, the Hamptons. Yet as anyone who as ever slogged it out along Route 27 in a chauffeured Bentley on a sizzling summer weekend knows, traffic is a great leveler.
Meanwhile, at East Hampton’s adorable little airport (code KHTO), newly endowed with a portable air control tower, it’s first come, first served for landing. And that’s no matter how sleek the plane or how high the net worth of the passengers—and, trust us, pilots never trumpet names for favors, anyway. Same for parking: Whether it’s Mort Zuckerman’s G550 or Warren Buffet’s NetJets ride of the day coming down runway “two eight,” whoever gets in ahead of the rest gets the hot spot. That’s democracy in action, baby, same as at the public parking lot on Newtown Lane.
Gaining a few minutes here, a cushy landing on a choice runway there, or a preferred departure time late on a Sunday afternoon comes down to “the aircraft’s capability and the pilot’s ability to negotiate with air traffic control,” says David Zara, a pilot of 30 years’ experience and cofounder of Zen Air (with Gianpaolo De Felice, Donna Karan’s son-in-law) and Tradewind Aviation, a worldwide charter and aircraft management company.
Zara says maneuvering for landings in the Hamptons can be like a “conga line” on high, with many factors affecting the rhythm. Should fog come rolling in—hardly unusual on the East End—a savvy pilot may request a direct shot to the initial approach point and jump ahead in line, while more sheepish pilots stay quiet and right where they are. Should a pilot’s flying ability and the plane’s capability enable a wide variety of approach speeds, air traffic controllers may squeeze them into the line. Even the sound of the pilot’s voice can be a factor, says Zara. “If you sound tentative, rather than confident, air traffic control may not be as helpful in expediting your arrival.” That’s the point at which the self-made magnates onboard may offer to do the talking.
While jets have inherent panache on the East End—and everywhere else, for that matter—Zara prefers to zip clients to the Hamptons in turbo-props such as a Cessna Grand Caravan, a Beechcraft King Air, or a Pilatus PC-12. “Jets make no sense; you might as well be throwing money away,” he says. “A Pilatus will beat a jet to the Hamptons every time.”
That’s not necessarily a deterrent, however. “Some guys couldn’t care less—their jet is like their car,” says David Anton of the boutique ad agency Anton & Partners, who has flown to the East End on many friends’ planes over the years. “From Detroit or Europe, I can see. But a lot of them fly in from Teterboro just to show off.”
Of course, when the originating airport is a bit farther west, like Hollywood, it’s all about the jet. But bigger and better—like Steven Spielberg’s Bombadier Global Express XRS—won’t get you to the head of the line at KHTO, either. More like a distant airport: Gabreski in Westhampton. But careful where you park your ride if you’re one of the little guys here: “Jet wash” from Air Force Two once knocked over a small private plane at Gabreski, much to the chagrin of Joe Biden and the team onboard.
Whatever they’re flying, Hamptons-bound air travelers have a style all their own. Lori Levine runs the New York–based talent-booking agency Flying Television, named for Keith Haring’s iconic imagery of TVs with wings. Levine has plenty of experience placing celebrities on flights, not least Gisele Bündchen, for whom she arranged transport out East to catch The Rolling Stones. “I told her she’d be able to fly out by helicopter, see the show, and come right back. She said, ‘Let me think about it,’” recalls Levine. “The next day she called back: ‘Hello, Lori? This is Giselle. About the helicopter: I’m thinking more Trump, less M.A.S.H.’”
Not everyone is so particular about their copters, judging from the scores of them hovering over the East End. Perhaps Madonna and Alex Rodriguez kicked off the chopper craze, when they were reported to have flown to the Hamptons in separate helicopters for a hush-hush gettogether just days after her divorce from Guy Ritchie; Jerry and Jessica Seinfeld picked them up, the story goes. Rihanna helicopters out here. Ditto for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who flies his companyowned, $4.5 million, six-seat Agusta SPA A109S helicopter (he is also on the waiting list for one hot new billionaire gadget, the hybrid helicopter plane from AgustaWestland). Susan Sarandon once choppered in for a Ping-Pong tournament, Brangelina for a fundraiser (although fog forced their flight to Gabreski). And Bündchen, despite her earlier reservations, has come around, even taking helicopter lessons (in a gas-guzzling Robinson R-44) to help with transport for her UN work.
The risk of sartorial mayhem may be one of the reasons fashion types are so fond of seaplanes. When Victoria’s Secret model Adriana Lima flew out in a privately chartered seaplane, giggling and squealing all the way, as gorgeous young things on top of the world tend to do, the “event” was profiled on Entertainment Tonight. Designer Nicole Miller also prefers not to land on terra firma when heading out East. And former model and Real Housewife of New York City Kelly Killoren Bensimon had a special motivation for one trip: “I did take a seaplane 10 days after my due date, hoping it would help my water break.” Nothing a rear-ender on the LIE wouldn’t have accomplished, of course—although it probably would have taken Bensimon a lot longer to get through traffic to the maternity ward.
Corporate Hamptonites, like their Hollywood brethren, prefer readier, steadier air transport, otherwise known as the private jet. The comings and goings of these high-flyers are even monitored by Jet Tracker database, a website maintained by the plutocrat’s favorite broadsheet, The Wall Street Journal. The private Falcon 900 jet owned by Jimmy Buffet’s curiously named company, Sails in Concert, flew to East Hampton 84 times between 2007 and 2010. The Cleveland Browns corporate jet ran 390 flights to East Hampton over the same period—presumably en route to owner Randy Lerner’s Amagansett Lanes estate. Perhaps that’s why the rabid bleacher warmers in the Dawg Pound (behind the end zone at Cleveland Browns Stadium) haven’t seen a winning season in five years.
Whatever the style of aircraft, the current Hamptons flight trend is “freeloading,” notes Flying Television’s Levine. “It’s all about who is flying out and who has the cool plane,” she says. “They jump onboard, get their photo taken, and then post it on Facebook marked up with ‘Thanks, so-and-so!’ for everybody to see.”
Unsurprisingly, not everyone is thrilled about air traffic over the Hamptons. Kathleen Cunningham, executive director of the Village Preservation Society of East Hampton, heads the Quiet Skies Coalition, a volunteer organization counting 300 residents who believe air traffic has become intolerable and is corroding quality of life on the East End.
Never mind the “chainsaw sound” produced by low-flying seaplanes. “Helicopters are the most egregious,” she says. “They come in low at frequent intervals so that you really feel like you are under siege. Even though you know the bombs aren’t going to drop, it’s like Apocalypse Now.” Although she insists she doesn’t begrudge the convenience of air travel, Cunningham says the East Hampton airport is not statistically relevant to moving people in and out of the community. “Ninety percent of people arrive in the Hamptons by car and eight percent by train, but only two percent by air. The great noise that results is a burden on the many for the privilege of the few.”
Cunningham is optimistic that the East Hampton town board really wants to mitigate noise in the area. Whatever the outcome, you know the issue of noise will remain divisive. Now-retired magazine editor Midge Richardson recalls her Sagaponack friend Kurt Vonnegut grumbling over noise from a grass airstrip in the fields behind Foster Farm on Sagg Main. “He lived next door and thought it should be stopped. He loved to complain,” she says with a big laugh. “Meanwhile, his wife, Jill, always came and went on friends’ private planes.”
illustrations by paul dickinson