To Reach Simple Life of Summer Camp, Lining Up for Private Jets

By CHRISTINE HAUGHNEY
Published: July 24, 2011

Gov. Paul LePage of Maine happened to be waiting for his flight at Augusta State Airport on a recent Saturday when the weekend crush began.

A turboprop Pilatus PC-12 carrying Melissa Thomas, her daughter, her daughter's friend and a pile of lacrosse equipment took off for their home in Connecticut, following the girls' three-week stay at Camp All-Star in nearby Kents Hill, Me. Shortly after, a Cessna Citation Excel arrived, and a mother, a father and their 13-year-old daughter emerged carrying a pink sleeping bag and two large duffel bags, all headed to Camp Vega in Fayette.

"Love it, love it, love it," Mr. LePage said of the private-plane traffic generated by summer camps. "I wish they'd stay a week while they're here. This is a big business."

For decades, parents in the Northeast who sent their children to summer camp faced the same arduous logistics of traveling long distances to remote towns in Maine, New Hampshire and upstate New York to pick up their children or to attend parents' visiting day.

Now, even as the economy limps along, more of the nation's wealthier families are cutting out the car ride and chartering planes to fly to summer camps. One private jet broker, Todd Rome of Blue Star Jets, said his summer-camp business had jumped 30 percent over the last year.

This weekend, a popular choice for visiting day at camps, private planes jammed the runways at small rural airports.

Officials at the airport in Augusta said 51 private planes arrived between Thursday and Saturday; on a normal day, they would expect just a few. The airport was so busy that one of its two public runways was closed so all the incoming planes would have someplace to park, said Dale Kilmer, operations manager for Maine Instrument Flight, which operates the airport.

"We have 50 to 60 jets up here in just that one day," Mr. Kilmer said. "It's a madhouse because they all leave at the same time, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m."

At Sullivan County Airport in Bethel, N.Y., roughly 40 percent of recent flights have carried families heading to summer camp. Officials at Laconia Municipal Airport in Gilford, N.H., and Moultonborough Airport in Moultonborough, N.H., reported similar numbers.

At Robert Lafleur Airport in Waterville, which is close to many of the private camps in the Belgrade Lake region of Maine, the assistant manager, Randy Marshall, brought on two extra people to help handle the traffic last weekend.

In Augusta, Mr. Kilmer usually creates a temporary lounge on parents' weekend for the pilots and flight attendants who must wait for their clients to return from their children's camps, so that they can depart later that afternoon. He has already received catering orders for return flights, which include fruit and sandwich trays for adults and sandwich boxes for younger siblings. One flier has already requested a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a fruit cup with a single strawberry, a juice box, a banana and a cookie or brownie.

The popularity of private-plane travel is forcing many high-priced camps, where seven-week sessions can easily cost more than $10,000, to balance the habits of their parents against the ethos of simplicity the camps spend the summer promoting.

Kyle Courtiss, whose family runs Camp Vega in Maine, said that his staff was trained "to be cognizant of stuff like that" and that private planes were "not what this camp is about."

Some camps said they recognized that the parents who flew in private planes were often strong financial supporters of these camps. Arleen Shepherd, director of Camp Skylemar, in Naples, Me., said that while some of the high-profile parents whose children attend Skylemar might fly privately, some campers had never flown on a plane.

Private-plane companies and parents say these flights have also become more affordable to a broader base of fliers.

Parents said round-trip commercial flights from the New York area to Portland, Me., on peak weekends when they are allowed to visit could cost $500 to $600, even when bought well in advance. Mr. Rome, the Blue Star Jets president, said families could rent a seven-person turboprop plane starting at $3,800 for a round trip in one day, making the price competitive with some commercial flights. "You don't have to be a millionaire to do it," Mr. Rome said.

Ms. Thomas, at the airport in Augusta, said the convenience of flying privately far outweighed the cost.

"I left my home at 6:45 this morning and I'll be home by noon; I'm turning this trip around in six hours," she said as she unloaded her daughter's bags from the back of her rented Crown Victoria sedan. "Otherwise, it's a couple days' trip."

The practice of flying charters to camps has become so prevalent that some parents have been known to try to hitch a ride — even if they are reluctant to talk about it.

A woman whose two daughters attend Tripp Lake Camp in Poland, Me., said, "A large part of the parents at my kid's camp own their own planes." She is scheduled to take a commercial flight to Portland for visiting days this weekend, but hopes to catch a private ride back.

But some parents have already tired of this private-plane status infiltrating the simpler world of summer camp. Nancy Chemtob, a divorce lawyer, made several summer trips to Maine in the past decade, where her children attended camp. She once managed to get on a charter plane from the airport in East Hampton, N.Y., for $750 (her husband had hung a sign in the airport seeking a ride). After listening to enough banter among parents about "who is flying, who is flying private, who they can get a lift home with," she decided she "was done with Maine and the planes and all of the people."

"It's a crazy world out there," she added. She now sends her children to camp in Europe.

Polly Saltonstall contributed reporting from Maine.

 


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