Every Wednesday, a friendly pilot landed at Long Island MacArthur Airport with bagels and coffee to share with the mechanics at Edward Libassi's shop. On Thursdays, another pilot arrived with hot cross buns.
Those social drop-ins have largely ended -- one of the many signs of a major decline in general aviation flights on Long Island and nationwide that has spanned nearly 15 years.
The prolonged downturn has Libassi, longtime owner of A&P Aircraft Maintenance, longing for the bustling days of old.
"The problem in aviation right now is the cost of parts, and just the general upkeep of the airplane -- the insurance, the tie-down, storage fees -- are beginning to far exceed the enjoyment level of flying the airplane," he said.
Those rising costs, along with higher fuel prices and the lingering effects of the recession, have walloped general aviation, shrinking the number of civilian pleasure flights out of U.S. airports, industry experts say.
As the economy slowly revs back up, there's optimism about the future of commercial and business travel. But the outlook for general aviation is glum.
Over the next 20 years, general aviation flights are expected to remain significantly below 2000 levels, even though the overall number of aircraft, ranging from small, privately owned planes to sleek corporate jets, is expected to increase slightly, according to a Federal Aviation Administration forecast.
That has some Long Island airports pleading for more business -- or hiking fees to cover costs.
'Get out there and fly'
At an airplane owners' meeting in the spring at Republic Airport in East Farmingdale, officials urged their audience to get in the cockpit.
"It's kind of a sad picture," airport manager Shelley LaRose-Arken told the pilots. "We hope you guys are going to get out there and fly a lot more next year."
Reflecting the national trend, general aviation flights have declined about 40 percent at two of Long Island's biggest airports -- Republic and MacArthur -- since 2004, statistics show.
At Republic, there were about 96,000 landings and takeoffs in 2013 compared with 159,000 in 2004.
On top of a significant drop in commercial flights at MacArthur in Ronkonkoma, general aviation has also shriveled -- from 141,000 flights in 2004 to 86,000 last year.
At Francis S. Gabreski Airport in Westhampton Beach, which serves a lot of people with Hamptons vacation homes, the number of flights dropped from 90,000 in 2008 to 56,000 in 2011, a 38 percent decline. Since then, Gabreski has seen an uptick of about 13 percent, which airport manager Anthony Ceglio attributes largely to the economic recovery.
Nationwide, general aviation flights decreased about 35 percent between 2000 and 2013 -- a steady decline from 40 million to 26 million, according to the FAA.
During the same period, the number of hours flown by general aviation pilots -- those who fly for fun, as part of flight schools or for business -- dropped 20 percent, from 30 million to 24 million.
Aging pilots a factor
In explaining the decline, local airport managers and industry consultants often cite fuel prices and economic pressures. Another factor, they say, is an aging pilot population.
In 1991, the average age of a private pilot was 42, according to an FAA study. In 2011, it was 48.
Because fewer young men and women are taking up the hobby, the overall number of private pilots in the United States has declined by 29 percent since 2000 -- from 252,000 to 180,000. The ranks are only expected to increase slightly, to 182,000, by 2034, according to the FAA forecast.
"It's a fairly stagnant pool of pilots who are aging, and then the costs just go up every year," said Robert Mann, president of Port Washington-based R.W. Mann & Co., an aviation consulting firm.
Three out of four takeoffs and landings nationwide are made by general aviation planes. The industry segment contributes to flight schools, mechanic shops, agricultural services, charter companies, manufacturers, tourism and more, pumping tens of billions of dollars into the economy, the FAA said.
Mann, the consultant, said general aviation's decline has a ripple effect on the local economy.
"Fixed-base operators pump less fuel, rent fewer hangars, employ fewer people in maintenance and line operations," he said. "These are generally pretty high-paid positions relative to the general market."
When operations at airports dwindle, they start to look empty.
"Nobody likes to see an underutilized facility, since underutilized facilities eventually turn into shopping malls," Mann said. "I look at airplanes on the ramps at some airports around here the same as I look at boats sitting out in the yard -- they rarely move."
Landing fees added
At Islip Town-run MacArthur, landing fees were increased in September, based on a plane's weight, to make up for lost revenue and financial woes. For the first time, the town also started charging landing fees for pilots whose aircraft are kept at MacArthur.
Islip officials said the airport expects to generate an additional $1.25 million from the fee increase.
While the new fees often amount to less than $10 per landing, some businesses and pilots complain that the costs keep piling on.
"We pay large amounts of rent to be there to use the land, which is including the use of the runways for our customers, so it's like adding a new fee to our lease," said Louis Mancuso, who runs Mid Island Air Service, which sells, rents and charters planes, and runs a flight school.
Libassi said higher costs are keeping pilots out of his MacArthur shop.
"If they can get another year of landing on their tires, they will ask me," he said. "It was an easier sell years ago to tell somebody . . . 'Why don't you have the two front seats reupholstered?' "
Chris Anderson of Morristown, New Jersey, believes it's time to start actively recruiting new pilots.
"You're going to find a lot of people who say it costs too much, you have to spend too much money, to hell with it," said Anderson, who flies his single-engine Piper Archer for business and pleasure, which includes trips to a Montauk vacation home. "If no one is going to do anything, I think it's going to continue to decline."