US: NASA gives Google founders a coveted parking place for their private jet

Publisher Name: 
International Herald Tribune

In the annals of perks enjoyed by American corporate executives, the founders of Google may have set a new standard: an un-crowded, federally-managed runway for their private jet that is as close as can be to being in the company's own backyard.

It is a perk that is likely to turn other Silicon Valley tycoons green with envy, but one that may not sit well with a community that generally considers itself proud to have Google in its midst.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration confirmed earlier this week that H211, a limited liability company that counts Google's chief executive, Eric Schmidt, as one of its principals, had secured rights to operate a refurbished wide-body Boeing 767-200 out of Moffett Field, an airport that is run by NASA and is generally closed to private aircraft.

The Google founders and billionaires, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, through another limited liability company, own just such a plane, which is unusually large and rare by private jet standards.

Moffett Field is nearly adjacent to Google's headquarters in Mountain View, California, and the four-mile, or 6.5 kilometer, drive between the two facilities takes just seven minutes, according to Google Maps. Other Silicon Valley executives have to make do with space for their jets at San Francisco or San Jose international airports.

How did the two billionaires get such a coveted parking place? Officials at NASA Ames Research Center said the space agency signed an agreement signed last month that allowed it to place instruments and scientists on planes owned by principals of H211, which in addition to the Boeing 767-200 includes two Gulfstream Vs, to collect scientific data on some flights. In exchange, NASA will receive about $1.3 million in annual fees for being host to the plane at Moffett, said Steven Zornetzer, associate director for institutions and research at NASA Ames Research Center.

"It was an opportunity for us to defray some of the fixed costs we have to maintain the airfield as well as to have flights of opportunity for our science missions," Zornetzer said. "It seemed like a win-win situation."

NASA said it had already run one mission on one of the Gulfstream Vs to observe the Aurigid meteor shower Aug. 31.

Still, the agreement is raising questions from local officials and community activists, who have a long history of opposing the expansion of flights at Moffett Field, a historic airport that was once under the supervision of the United States Navy, but was transferred to NASA in 1994.

"The Google flights represent the possibility that the camel's nose is under the tent, and that NASA is looking at opening up the use of the runways to help pay for it," said Lenny Siegel, director of the Pacific Studies Center, a local non-profit group that over the years has opposed various proposed expansions of civilian flights at Moffett Field. "The majority of the people in the community are against that."

Siegel said he was hoping NASA would provide clear answers about the agreement. "If they are doing science missions, that's O.K.," Siegel said. "If they are doing it just because they are rich and popular, it is not O.K."

Google and Ames Research Center have other agreements to collaborate on research, as well as a preliminary plan for Google to build as much as a million square feet, or 93,000 square meters, of space at Ames. But Zornetzer said the deal with H211 was unrelated to the Google agreements.

Google, for its part, says that this is a personal matter involving the founders, who would not comment.

"This is not a new issue," said Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, a Democrat, whose district includes Moffett. "You have to live with your neighbors. You are not out in the middle of the desert. You are in the heart of Silicon Valley."

Eshoo said she sent a letter Tuesday to NASA Ames director S. Pete Worden asking him to provide further details.

The plane's presence at Moffett Field was first reported last week by the technology gossip blog Valleywag. According to FlightAware, a flight tracking service, a Boeing 767-200 took off last Wednesday from Moffett Field for Seville, Spain, where Google happened to have a meeting of its European staff.

The Google founders' jet has been the talk of Silicon Valley since 2005, when the pair purchased the plane, which in a normal configuration can hold 180 passengers. A year later, talk about the plane intensified after The Wall Street Journal wrote about a legal dispute between the owners and a contractor who was charged with refurbishing the plane. In the article, the contractor described requests for modifying the plane to include California king size beds for the founders. At one point, the founders asked whether hammocks could be hung from the ceiling. The contractor said that Schmidt had described the jet as "party plane."

Since then, Brin and Page have been intensely private about the plane. They sued the contractor who spoke to The Wall Street Journal to prevent him from talking to the press further. And Google adamantly refuses to discuss any aspect of the plane, saying it is not a corporate jet, but rather a private plane owned by company employees. Technology blogs have reported sightings of the Google plane in places like Christchurch, New Zealand. According to FlightAware, the Boeing 767-200, stayed in Seville until Friday, when it flew to Great Falls, Montana, and onto Los Angeles. On Sunday, it flew to Moffett Field, and then to McClellan Airfield in Sacramento, where the plane was believed to be based before the agreement to move it to Moffett Field was signed.

Ever since the Navy decided to close operations at Moffett Field in the early 1990s, local communities have been opposed to expanding the airport's use. In 1992, voters in Mountain View and Sunnyvale overwhelmingly rejected the idea of opening up Moffett Field to general aviation in nonbinding votes. To this day, Sunnyvale, which is on the Moffett Field flight path, has a policy statement opposing "commercial aviation, general aviation and air cargo at Moffett Field."

Zornetzer, of NASA, said the agency was proceeding cautiously and was not expecting the deal to create a large number of new flights at Moffett. An environmental impact statement, limits flights at Moffett Field to 25,000 a year. But only about 16,000 military, NASA, U.S. Coast Guard, and medical rescue flights operate out of the field each year, Zornetzer said. While two other private parties are allowed to use the airfield, a helicopter operator and Lockheed Martin, none of those agreements are for flying private jets. NASA officials could not immediately say whether any other similar agreements exist for other agency-run airfields.

As news of the jet's presence at Moffett Field spread, private jet owners and operators have begun coveting the airfield.

"Everyone who operates private jets or owns them has been eyeing that gorgeous runway eager to take off from there," said Nicholas Solinger, chief strategy officer for XOJET, a private aviation company. Solinger said Moffett was far better situated for most Silicon Valley executives than the airports at San Jose and San Francisco. "People will now redouble their efforts to get access to that airfield," he said.

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