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SkyWest departure may draw fliers from Klamath Falls to Rogue Valley

SkyWest's exit from Crater Lake Klamath Regional Airport has ruffled feathers in the Klamath Basin and opened doors in the Rogue Valley.

When the other shoe drops on June 5, travelers will have to depart from Medford — or go even farther — to catch a flight.

While Medford airport Director Bern Case isn't exactly jumping up and down for joy at the cessation of commercial flights on the other side of the Cascades, he anticipates at least a short-term uptick here in Jackson County.

"It's not good for the region," Case said. "Any time an airport loses service, it's tough, because there is a certain amount of synergy. On the other hand, I'm sure we'll pick up additional passengers from the Klamath area."

While travelers who bought tickets for summer trips have a couple of months to sort out their options, Case figures many will look 75 miles to the west.

"They have a couple thousand passengers a month," Case said. "I don't know if we will get all of those, but it could boost us 1,000 passengers a month. It's tough to calculate, because we already pick up a lot of people from the Klamath Basin who take Delta to Salt Lake City or United to Denver."

Having battled to preserve legacy service and add destinations himself, Case understands the tenuous realities of dealing with airlines.

"When it comes to airports, the better you do, the better you can do," he said. "The more passengers you have, the more leverage you have to increase service. I don't know if Alaska or Horizon are planning an additional flight to Portland, or whether they've already calculated this in advance, but I'm hoping we get some extra capacity. Believe me, when there is an opportunity, you need to be ready to take a little bit of an advantage."

Klamath Falls is one of two West Coast cities losing service. SkyWest said it was ceasing flights as part of its United Express service between Modesto and San Francisco International Airport.

The biggest slap in the face is that grant money for a promotional campaign to fill United Express seats this year will lose its impact, said Crater Lake Klamath Regional Airport Director John Longley.

Instead, Longley is now talking to as many as a half-dozen carriers to fill the vacuum.

"I don't expect SkyWest to shut down one day and somebody to open the next," Longley said. "It could happen, and some of the people are pretty eager, but I wouldn't realistically say that's a likelihood."

Case suggested SeaPort Airlines, the Portland-based operator presently connecting North Bend and Pendleton to Portland, as one option.

Longley said increasing crew and fuel costs, the federal government spending sequester and the reorganization of manufacturer Jeld-Wen were all factors in declining passenger counts.

In 2008, the Klamath County business community pushed hard to land direct flights to the Bay Area, only to see Horizon Air depart as SkyWest touched down on the runway.

Darin Rutledge, chairman of Klamath Vision 20/20 and a past chamber of commerce president, said the early-morning departures and late-night arrivals weren't necessarily a favorite for vacationers.

"For recreational travelers, the timing seemed inconvenient," Rutledge said. "For some larger employers, it's going to have a bigger impact."

He doesn't anticipate an easy fix for Klamath Basin air travel but expects the business community to aggressively seek a replacement. In the meantime, he said, Medford will benefit from Klamath Falls' pain.

"I have a feeling Medford will be the first option, because of the proximity," Rutledge said. "I know there are people who go to Reno, but that's about a four-hour drive."

Smaller airports across the country are seeing reduced service partly because of pilot shortage. Federal Aviation Administration regulations upped the certification standards at the same time it reduced the allowable flight time for pilots in recent months.

As a result, fewer profitable routes and markets are in the crosshairs when airlines have to make cuts, Case said

"For years, airlines depended on military retirees, and in the last decade there have been fewer coming out," he said. "I'm not against safety, but every time the criteria get stiffer, you have fewer pilots. When you have fewer pilots, the smaller communities are the ones who are going to lose out."

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/Economic Edge.

The Crater Lake-Klamath Regional Airport, in Klamath Falls, will lose its service to Portland and San Francisco provided by United Express via SkyWest on June 5. (Herald & News file photo) - Courtesy of Herald & News