Oct. 21--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.
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