Auto industry executives stepped off private jets before holding out their hands for federal bailout money late last year, effectively vilifying general aviation.

Economy-conscious and image-conscious customers have cut back since then, leaving business down 35 percent or more across the country and here in town, according to Gary Davis, president of Charleston-based DavisAir Inc.

That immortalized image from Washington makes him cringe, because it represents "the problem," as he puts it, "the excess."

"Business aviation, if used responsibly, is as essential as a Blackberry or a laptop computer," Davis said. "It's a tool."

The National Business Aviation Association estimates top company managers account for only 14 percent of business aircraft passengers. Davis describes his clientele as restaurateurs with multiple locations, management consultants with far-flung meetings and people with money to travel directly to obscure locales for the best hunting or fishing.

He points out that of the nearly 20,000 airports across the country, little more than 600 include major air carrier operations. That means arriving in a small town involves time on the road after the commercial flight.

Davis' company recently took a customer to Crossville, Tenn., and returned the same day in a four-hour roundtrip. Traveling on a major airline would have meant a total of about six hours in the air to Knoxville, Tenn., and then 70 miles on the road each way, plus airport layovers and check-in times, he said.

Business travelers can work through a private flight without waiting for permission to use electronics or heeding other passengers. And they can arrive at the gate five minutes before take off.

But benefits aside, general aviation airplane shipments decreased for the first time in five years in 2008, the General Aviation Manufacturers Association reports. Local general aviation fuel use dropped nearly 5 percent between July and January when compared with the same time a year earlier, according to the Charleston County Aviation Authority.

Davis plans to combat the slump by adding more planes to his operating certificate. By the end of April his company could grow from a fleet of one Beechcraft KingAir to include both a smaller plane and a larger plane.

The larger aircraft sits unused at DavisAir's sister company in Pittsburgh, while the owner of the smaller plane hopes to have DavisAir charter it to offset costs. Those aircraft would provide Davis with a cheaper alternative in the small plane — about $300 an hour compared to $1,250 for the KingAir— plus a larger aircraft capable of flying faster and farther.

Expansion-minded Davis is not alone.

Magellan Jets, a Massachusetts-based, high-end boutique jet charter, opened a Charleston office Feb. 1. Patrick Tivnan, whose nephews own the company, runs local operations with hope of securing business across the Southeast.

"We project that once this recession corrects itself, we're actually going to see a growth in private aviation," he said.

Tivnan described a Magellan customer as leaving early in the morning for a meeting in, say, Houston, departing after lunch for a second destination and returning to Charleston that night. While the typical vacationer doesn't fit Magellan's demographic, neither does the high-profile corporate executive, according to Tivnan.

"There's a big misconception about the average person flying privately," Tivnan said. "It's not Donald Trump. It's Joe Smith you probably live next to."