Orange County Triples Private Air Traffic

Last year, the John Wayne Airport tallied nearly 36,000 private jet arrivals and departures, an average of 100 a day.

For two decades, fractional jet programs have sold as little as 1/16 of a plane, giving the tax benefits of ownership without the cost or responsibilities.NetJets,the first fractional company and now a subsidiary of Warren Buffett'sBerkshire Hathaway Inc.,runs a fleet of 650 private aircraft and reported a 25 percent revenue increase in the first nine months of 2006.

The Marquis Jet cards grant access to NetJets' fleet for travelers who plan to fly as little as 25 hours a year, the equivalent to 1/32 of a plane. Skyjet cards, sold by Canadian aircraft makerBombardier, start at $94,000 for 25 hours on the company's small Learjets.

Ownership costs are also declining as new very light jets enter the market. The latest example: the Eclipse 500, the first of which was sold in January, is designed for a single pilot and up to five passengers, selling for $1.5 million. Its range is 1,300 statute miles at a cruising speed of 420 mph. The Eclipse costs $500 per hour to fly, the company says. That compares with $3,900 for a Citation X chartered throughTWC Aviation, another charter company at John Wayne.

Despite rising demand for private jets, operators say their margins remain thin, threatened by rising fuel prices -- jet fuel typically costs $2 a gallon more than gasoline, a surcharge often passed to customers -- insurance rates and stiff competition.

"Obviously, our company is doing very well," Hunt said. "We've been in it 20 years and gone from one to 30 planes. But you don't get rich."

AIR SPACE:Private jets and propeller-driven planes gather outside the West Coast Charters hangar area at John Wayne Airport. The charter company is the airport's largest, with 85 employees and 30 aircraft, including eight jets.

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