While private flying at John Wayne Airport plummeted during the recession, the decline has begun to taper off.
Data released Tuesday showed that 7% fewer "general aviation" planes took off or landed at JWA in 2010 compared with 2009, a marked improvement over double-digit drops in the previous two years.
JWA became especially unaffordable during the recession because of its comparably high fuel costs, local pilots said.
At more than $6 per gallon for jet fuel and gasoline, JWA is more expensive than airports in Fullerton, Long Beach, Torrance and others nearby. Many Southern California airports offer full-service gas at less than $5 per gallon.
With some small aircraft equipped with 75-gallon tanks, this could translate to significant savings at any given fill-up.
"For a small plane owner, $100 is a lot of money," said Fredric Fourcher, a pilot and Corona del Mar resident.
He might stop off in Big Bear or Chino on the way back to JWA to save money.
Two companies offer fuel at JWA — Atlantic Aviation and Signature Flight Support — while some other airports have more competitors that drive prices down. These "fixed base operators" at JWA cater to high-end clients that might be visiting Irvine or Newport Beach for business.
"It's one of the reasons that people avoid coming into John Wayne, unless they have an expense account," said Joe Finnell, president of the Orange County Pilots Assn.
Companies' budgets dwindled and corporate jet travel was vilified after the financial crisis, with general aviation dropping off steeply. At JWA, there were 24% fewer take-offs and landings in 2008 than 2007, and 28% fewer in 2009.
The stabilization this past year is heartening for pilots and the small-plane industry, but the county-owned airport won't make much more money. General aviation accounts for only 4% of the airport's total revenues. That includes about $2.5 million annually from the fixed-base operators, which pass on a percentage of fuel sales to the county.
Commercial carriers, by comparison, bring in 41% of the airport's revenues.
"We are a commercial airport, and that's our main focus," said airport spokeswoman Jenny Wedge.
More than 200 pilots have joined a waiting list for hangar and general aviation parking spaces at the airport, Wedge said, so some people must still be able to afford to fly out of JWA.
"In the big scheme of things, Orange County is an attractive location," Wedge said. "There's a price that comes with that."