End-of-year fog thwarts airport's hopes for record

The chronicles of the less-than-utopian Rogue Valley weather show the winter of 1980-81 wreaked a special havoc on local transportation as fog created turmoil — both on the ground and air.

Only once in more than three decades have fewer than 10,000 commercial air travelers flown out of the Medford in a given month. That was in January 1981, part of six consecutive weeks of wretched, dreadfully dense fog that clung to the Rogue Valley floor. Not even the aftermath of 9/11 so utterly clamped down on a monthly total.

Top-10 years for Medford airport

Passenger count

2007 — 647,471

2012 — 642,569

2011 — 639,679

2013 — 631,234

2010 — 618,195

2008 — 604,690

2006 — 597,965

2005 — 594,682

2009 — 594,532

2004 — 532,194

Source: Medford airport

"Everyone talks about the fog in 1981, and we definitely did see the dip in travel historically," airport Director Bern Case said.

Not since then has fog put such a major dent in airport operations, but the past few weeks have been a constant reminder of how easily fog can rearrange the most carefully laid travel plans.

Fresh off their second-best year ever in 2012, airport officials hoped to challenge the 2007 passenger record. After a fast start, however, 2013 turned ho-hum and wound up fourth-best, with 631,234 passengers ticketed in and out of Medford, 11,335 fewer than in 2012. On the bright side, it was the sixth year in seven that the airport handled more than 600,000 passengers.

"We were within 2 percent of 2012, even with all the challenges," Case said. "It's the worst fog season since I've been the director, and we're not done with it yet. The terrible fog in December is going to play a part in our January numbers as well. The key is to keep everyone safe; if the pilot is not comfortable with visibility, then that's his or her call."

So far, Case hasn't had to deal with a crash, which happened in early 1981 when a light plane missed the runway, hit Crater Lake Highway and burst into flames, injuring five people. The fog was so bad that winter that at one point, school bus drivers refused to drive, shutting down the Medford School District.

Passenger activity in 2013 was 4.6 percent ahead of 2012 through March and 3.4 percent ahead through May. But it slowed in the summer and after Labor Day, just matching 2012.

Then, Allegiant lost flights in November and fog plagued the Rogue Valley through the end of the year.

December saw a 12.5-percent decline in travel, with 45,431 people — the fewest in six years — passing through the gates, compared with 51,929 in 2012.

Alaska Air Group unit Horizon Air, which accounts for slightly more than half the passenger count, saw a 9-percent drop in December traffic. United Express saw its count decline by 26.6 percent and Delta Connection was off 3.7 percent. Allegiant Air was up less than 1 percent.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/EconomicEdge.


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