New York Times
Unclear Future for Airport that is Seeking Buyer
September 13, 2012
  • Share
  • MONTAUK, N.Y. — The easternmost airport in New York State has things that La Guardia and Kennedy International do not. A beach just beyond the runway, where pilots can work on their tans and swim in the ocean. An outdoor shower, where they can rinse off before they climb back in their cockpits. And a for-sale sign.

    Helen Gil, the airport manager since 1993, said that traffic had been lighter this year but that more helicopters were using the airport.

    The privately owned Montauk Airport was listed with a real estate broker last month for $18 million. It has no concourses, no baggage carousels, no food courts and no control tower, and only a single runway, less than half the length of the ones at La Guardia. Where La Guardia is spread across 680 acres, Montauk Airport covers a mere 37 — and they are zoned residential, so a buyer could easily develop the site for housing.

    But no one who knows the airport seems to want that, not even the broker who has the listing.

    “I think ultimately what everyone wants is for the airport to stay an airport,” the broker, Paul Brennan, said. “From a real estate perspective, it’s a community asset that should remain, because once it goes, it’s gone.”

    It is a modest asset, though. The 3,400-foot runway is too short for the kinds of private jets that circle the airports in East Hampton, 23 miles away, or Westhampton, nearly 50 miles away. And the airport has no fueling operation, so its most frequent fliers — single-engine pilots from New England on day trips — cannot refuel there.

    Helen Gil, the airport manager since 1993, said it made its money from landing fees — $17 for a single-engine plane, $22 for a twin-engine, $40 to $45 for an eight-seat aircraft like ones flown by commercial charter companies from New England.

    A small jet landed last month, she said.

    “We charged $50,” Ms. Gil said. “Should have charged more.”

    The airport reported 30,361 takeoffs and landings from September 2009 to September 2010, the most recent 12-month period for which a tally was available. That worked out to 83 a day. But business is seasonal, with the heaviest traffic in the summer, and Ms. Gil said 2012 was lighter.

    There was another difference. This summer, she said, more helicopters touched down than in years past.

    That is the trend, said Mr. Brennan, who has handled some of the big real estate deals on the East End of Long Island, including the $27 million sale of Andy Warhol’s former estate in 2007.

    “The Ralph Laurens of the world, the Mickey Drexlers,” Mr. Brennan said, referring to Millard S. Drexler, the chief executive of the J. Crew Group, “are not going to be driving down 27 from New York for five or six hours. They’re going to hop on a helicopter and come out from Manhattan to Montauk in 40 minutes.”

    Some Montaukers say helicopters are a sign that their community is being Hamptonized, a prospect they do not relish. Higher real estate prices are another sign, one that points to a potential problem if the airport is to remain an airport.

    “There’s just no way of making that airport pay anywhere near the asking price as far as the real estate is concerned,” said Peter Lowenstein, the president of the Montauk Pilots Association, which has 25 members. “To pay $18 million for something that in a good year returns $10,000 — well, to coin a phrase, do the arithmetic. My feeling is, if it ever gets sold, it would have to be to somebody who’s not thinking logically as far as payback on any kind of investment.”

    When Mr. Brennan posted the listing, there was talk that pilots would band together and buy it. “That’s not going to happen,” Mr. Lowenstein said. “Too much money.”

    The airport is a relic from the late 1950s. It began with several investors led by Perry B. Duryea Jr., a Montauker who had been a plane commander in the United States Naval Transport Service during World War II and was later speaker of the New York State Assembly. But he died in 2004, and Mr. Brennan said the airport was like the large farms on the East End that had been sold and subdivided by builders.

    “It reaches a stage when the older generation has died and the younger generation takes over, and they really don’t want to continue farming and want the money,” Mr. Brennan said. “I think that’s kind of the case here. They’re asking themselves why are they keeping an asset that’s not doing them any good.”

    Mr. Duryea’s son, Perry B. Duryea III, did not return calls.

    Even if it changed hands, the airport would have to stay in business until at least seven years from now. In return for federal grants totaling more than $1 million — for improvements like lights on the taxiway — the airport had to promise it would remain open for 10 years after the last grant. That was in 2009, Ms. Gil said.

    Mr. Brennan said he had received at least 50 calls from potential buyers. But Tim Brady of Easton, Conn., who was preparing for takeoff in his single-engine Cessna Centurion, said selling it would be a “tragedy.”

    “This is one of those little gems of life,” said Mr. Brady, an insurance company underwriter. “My wife and I flew in when we were dating and would walk over the sand dune at the end of the runway, and the ocean’s right there. We were trying to think of any other airport that has this wonderful a setup, and we can’t.”