John Wayne Airport’s general aviation roots date back to the barnstorming days of 1923, when Eddie Martin used to land his Jenny biplane on a desolate stretch of salt grass on Irvine Ranch, near what is now South Main Street and the 55.
As recently as 1990, small planes were the airport’s mainstay, making up nearly 90 percent of John Wayne’s 523,000 takeoffs and landings that year.
That made John Wayne the third most active general aviation airfield in the country, reports the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
“(General aviation is) what the airport was designed for, and that’s how it flourished,” Phil Boyer, head of AOPA’s local chapter, told a Register reporter in 1991. “And that’s how it will continue to flourish.”
The airport did flourish, but not with general aviation.
Activity of small planes and other aircraft that don’t provide scheduled air service has plummeted nearly 60 percent since the heyday, as John Wayne’s passenger traffic has almost doubled.
Last year, small planes accounted for 172,000 of John Wayne’s 286,000 takeoffs and landings — about 60 percent. Student pilots, who practice landings and takeoffs, make up a large part of that activity.
Aviation experts, pilots and airport management say that John Wayne has fallen victim to the same trends affecting general aviation nationwide, including the high cost of owning and maintaining a private plane and the skyrocketing cost of aviation fuel.
Age is also a factor, as a generation of post-World War II flying buffs retire or die.
But general aviation pilots also think airport officials’ priority is now on commercial passenger service, to the detriment of little guys.
They cite several recent actions that make it even more expensive for them to stay at the airport and raise financial barriers to would-be newcomers.
“I’ve gotten multiple emails from members,” said Joe Finnell, president of the SoCal Pilots Association. “The biggest complaint they have is about an airport administration and county that is forcing us off the field.”
Airport Director Alan Murphy insists John Wayne is committed to maintaining general aviation, noting that activity edged up last year after falling more than 30 percent from the recent peak in 2004.
“We are not getting a lot of new aircraft,” Murphy said, but he insisted that’s due to general aviation trends, not anything the airport did.
One of the issues that irked John Wayne’s general aviation community is a new requirement that anyone with a tie-down have $500,000 in automobile liability insurance in case they drive their car into an airplane or otherwise cause damage at the airport.
Noting there is no instance in recent memory of a general aviation pilot driving his car into a plane, the pilots simply ask, why?
The requirement is not a big deal to pilots with homeowners insurance. Many already have an umbrella liability policy or can add one.
The Insurance Information Institute says $1 million in coverage costs $150 to $300 a year. A 45-year-old man with a good driving record might pay $270 to $1,200 a year for auto liability coverage of $500,000, depending on the driver’s age, record and annual mileage.
Murphy said the county had not revised its tie-down license for years. As part of the update, the county’s risk manager wanted a $1 million auto liability insurance provision to be included to protect the airport from potential damage because of the expensive commercial jets that operate at John Wayne.
After discussion with the pilots, the requirement was reduced to $500,000.
“You have to have it because these things may happen,” said Murphy.
He said automobile liability insurance is a common requirement at other airports. A list of 20 other airports and airport departments surveyed by John Wayne showed five required auto liability insurance of at least $500,000.
Bill Dunn, AOPA’s vice president of advocacy in Maryland, said a $1 million requirement was not uncommon. But he also noted that in the 22 years he’s been with the organization, the only accidents he has heard of that damaged a commercial aircraft involved vehicles servicing the plane.
He pointed out that John Wayne’s small planes are parked on the opposite side of the airport, completely segregated from the passenger jets, reducing the possibility of a problem.
“They have risk managers who know nothing about aviation or airport operations,” Dunn said. “Their sole job in life is to protect the airport from liability, perceived or real.”
TAJ MAHAL PARKING
John Wayne’s small plane pilots are even more upset about the outcome of their proposal for covered or shaded tie-downs, which are like carports for airplanes.
The project has dragged on for seven years, since the pilots first approached airport administrators with a proposal for structures with roofs to provide their planes with protection from the sun and elements.
Pilots told the airport they would plan and build structures and turn them over to the county when the estimated $2.1 million to $3 million cost was paid off in about 20 years.
They expected the rent for the 60 spaces to be $200 to $250 a month. The uncovered tie-downs cost $140.
Instead, airport management decided to construct the covered structures. The county project, which includes 59 spaces in three covered tie-downs, took nearly three years to complete at a cost of $2.5 million.
The county’s initial proposed rent was $354 a month, which was later reduced to $300.
The pilots insist the county built an unnecessarily fancy and costly structure — complete with barrel-shaped roofs that match the design of the commercial terminals on the other side of the airport. They said they would have been happy with a simple tin roof.
Even worse, the pilots say, the roofs the county built are too short to completely cover their planes, which defeats the purpose of the covered tie-down.
“They were poorly designed, over-engineered and they have been sitting empty for two years,” said Bob Lange, AOPA’s representative at John Wayne and a general contractor. “We offered a lot more for a lot less.”
Les Whittlesey, a contractor whose Legacy Aviation Development in Irvine has built similar structures at other airports, said the county’s cost was not unreasonable. But had the county allowed the pilots to do it themselves, he said, they could have probably done it for 25 percent less.
Murphy said the project required extra structural work that the pilots had not included. The airport took over the project because he did not want to give up control of the property for 20 years or more, he said. He blamed the delays on a problem with the original contractor the airport hired.
The pilots also say that day-to-day costs at the airport make it increasingly difficult to stay there.
They point to the price of aviation fuel, which recently ran about $7.45 a gallon at John Wayne, compared with $5.59 at Chino Airport.
Fuel prices are set not by the airport but by two privately owned operators that provide services to private aircraft.
Pilots argue the county could provide self-serve fuel that would be cheaper. Many John Wayne pilots fly to other nearby airports to fill up.
It is unclear whether the dramatic decline in general aviation at John Wayne has bottomed out.
The airport was once in such high demand that small-craft pilots waited as long as 10 years to get parking spaces. Now, just 285 tenants occupy the airport’s 380 general aviation spaces. General aviation takeoffs and landings fell 5.1 percent through the first eight months of 2013 versus a year earlier.
Mike Church, head of Sunrise Aviation, sees an opportunity for renewed interest in flying spurred by recent announcements by several airlines that they’re hiring pilots.
Church has trained 1,500 pilots in his 30 years at John Wayne, and he’s hoping to teach more.
“I have 20 graduates now at SkyWest,” he said.
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