Friday, September 3, at 6 p.m., a group of 22 aircraft company owners arrived by private jet at the East Hampton Airport and boarded a black Mercedes bus for the 3-mile drive to the luxurious new estate of Catalan Smith on Georgica Pond.
Smith, an airport advocate and a newly minted Silicon Valley billionaire whose cash would pay the legal bills, had invited them to his private retreat for a discreet three-hour meeting to discuss strategy designed to prevent the owner of the airport, East Hampton Town, from closing it.
“Y’all come,” the invitation read. “It’ll be in and out. 45-minute flight in, the meeting, and 45 minutes back to NYC.”
Smith is from Texas and a fellow aircraft owner. He owns six private jets.
The guest speaker, the invitation continued, would be U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the Republican candidate for governor of New York, who would outline strategy. And dinner would be included. A special treat. Each participant would be served a three-course gourmet dinner made by one of the 22 best private chefs in the Hamptons, all of whom were sworn to secrecy.
The bus pulled out of the airport parking lot and headed toward Georgica Pond. But halfway there, the uniformed steward on the bus said there had been a change. Smith’s estate had been flooded by the recent rains. Instead, the event would take place at another estate in East Hampton on Wainscott Harbor Road. The bus, having come west down the Montauk Highway, turned north on that road.
“No worries,” the steward said. “It’s an even bigger estate than Smith’s place. Another billionaire, this one in mergers and acquisitions, owns it, but I can’t tell you who.”
The aircraft company owners looked out the windows. The sun had now set. And as the sky darkened, they continued through the woods until they saw a pair of white wooden gates that, when opened, would lead them to this second estate. It was on the other side of the airport.
The bus came to a halt and the 22 men climbed out. Indeed, this estate was lush and beautiful. But overhead the planes were thundering in, making a dreadful noise. The steward led them down a path where several white-gloved servers were handing out glasses of champagne from silver trays. The men gratefully took them, thirsty as they were from their travels.
Security people nodded knowingly at them by the front door. A comfort. They smiled. And soon they were led into a large room where they were seated at dining tables set with the finest silver and china. At one end was a raised stage and microphone stand.
An entertainer all had seen on The Tonight Show jumped up to the microphone and shouted toward the crowd. It was hard to hear with the noise overhead. There was something about Mr. Smith regretting not being able to be there.
Actually, Mr. Smith was there in person, but seated in a room behind the stage, tied up and gagged.
“So let’s get on with the show,” the entertainer said, motioning with his arm. “Mr. Zeldin, the mic is yours.”
Zeldin climbed up with vigor and began to speak from notes. But he has a soft voice.
“Can’t hear you,” came the shout from John Belgin, the owner of Metropolitan Air Charters.
Several more chimed in. But now Zeldin was interrupted by a man from offstage who strode in carrying a bullhorn.
“My name is Charles Hawk,” he shouted. Everyone could hear. Zeldin skittered off.
“I’m the president of Airport Compromise, a new group with 4,000 members who don’t want to see the airport closed but do want to see decibel levels enforced and the airport hours limited from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. People need to get some sleep. And you will not be leaving this room until we get what we want!”
The aircraft company owners sat stunned. It was they who had sued the owner of the airport, the Town of East Hampton, in 2015 for putting in these very restrictions which a judge threw out, saying that Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules were not being followed. The restrictions had worked perfectly for the two months before the court decision. Everyone knew that.
Anthony Faccone, the owner of Hampton Jetstream Aviation, in the audience, stood up.
“This is a trick!!” he shouted. “Let’s leave. Everybody. Let’s go.”
And about half the people in the audience stood up and headed for the exits, where they were barred from leaving by the very same security people who made sure they would be the only people let in. The security crew were, in fact, all local people who suffer from the airport. That’s who did the work in the Hamptons. They ushered the airline owners back to their seats, sitting them down forcefully when necessary.
“We know why you are here,” Hawk continued. “You are just waiting for the East Hampton Town to shut the airport. And you know, and we know too, that the airport property used to be owned by the federal government, who gave it to the town for a dollar with the caveat that if the town ever closed the airport, the feds could have it deeded back for a dollar to keep it open. So then the town will have no leg to stand on! Isn’t that right?”
Zeldin smiled knowingly.
“Well, nobody leaves this room,” Hawk continued. And they could all hear him. “Until you sign on to this agreement. The FAA will go along with it.”
He waved some papers.
“And yes, we have a notary here.”
Another airline owner, Chuck Barnstable of Northeast Skyway, stood up and tried to speak. But Hawk shouted him down.
“Sign and get dinner. The chefs are in the kitchen. That’s how it is. Or stay here hungry all night in this airport noise. That’s what we do. We live here.”
“This is outrageous,” Barnstable shouted.
“Yes, it is,” Hawk said.
Beleaguered by the oppressive sound of the overhead aircraft, it took less than 30 minutes for the first one to sign. He was booed by the others. But two hours and 45 minutes later, the last of them signed.
After which the special dinners were served.