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Passenger stats soar despite pilot shortage

The Medford airport's five commercial carriers reported 89,948 passengers in July, snapping the single-month record of 88,828 set in June.

The total might have been much higher had Alaska not canceled roughly 20 flights during the month because of a pilot shortage.

With firefighting tankers and spotter planes filling the smoky skies, the reduced number of Alaska/Horizon Q400s dropping in from Portland and Seattle might have been less noticeable — unless, of course, you were one of those booked on a canceled flight.

Horizon canceled hundreds of flights this summer and has nixed Medford-Los Angeles flights altogether for the next month as it strains to deal with an industrywide pilot shortage.

Regional markets such as Medford are hit hardest because airlines park smaller planes, such as the 76-passenger Bombardier Q400s that Alaska flies to the Rogue Valley, in favor of regional or larger jets.

Alaska Air Group did not immediately respond to requests for an interview, but in statements released earlier this month, the Seattle-based air group said it would have a new wave of pilots available for flight in December.

"It's not an easily solved problem," said Ashland travel writer Ed Perkin. "It's not as if you can put out a notice and get 100 qualified applicants; it doesn't work that way because of mandated instruction and air time."

While Alaska announced last year it is replacing the Q400s with regional jets, similar to what SkyWest Airlines uses for Delta and United, the process will take several years.

Airport Director Bern Case was happy with the numbers despite the irregularities.

"There were very few days when there wasn't at least one Alaska cancellation," Case said. "They strategically canceled flights with the least impact. They were pretty effective rebooking people, because I haven't heard an uproar."

The airport saw an 11 percent year-over-year gain in July from the 2016 monthly record of 81,048. Through seven months, there have been 488,401 travelers, 5.4 percent more than last year.

Alaska still accounted for more than a third of the airport's travelers in July, even though its count was down 4.8 percent. United's main trunk jets and United Express regional jets, flown by SkyWest Airlines, combined for nearly 28,000 passengers, while American Eagle and Delta Connection both saw solid months.

Perkins said American and Delta could see a competitive advantage coming with the pilot shortage and move quickly to fill the gaps.

"I think American management could see Horizon was going to be stretched," he said. "Whether they could see so far that a particular (route) was vulnerable, I don't think so."

Delta and Alaska have gone from partners to bitter rivals for customers at Sea-Tac airport.

"They've fired shots over the bow for a couple of years," Perkins said. "Delta is trying to build up its hub in Seattle. They have a fair amount of flights from there to Asia and to Europe and want to feed those routes."

  — Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Passengers unload from an Alaska/Horizon flight at the Medford airport. Alaska canceled 20 flights in July because of a pilot shortage. [MT file photo]