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Heading toward its millionth passenger

Bigger planes, more seats and growing options have fueled the largest commercial air-growth spurt in the Medford airport’s history.

So much so that airport Director Jerry Brienza is confident the million-passenger threshold will be reached this year.

“We’re projecting 12 to 15 percent increases each month, so at the end of the year we would be over a million passengers,” Brienza said Friday.

Figures posted this week show that 72,326 passengers passed through the gates in March, up 11.7 percent from 64,780 in 2017. For the year, the airport is running 13.5 percent ahead of last year.

Brienza concedes one of the great attractions for him leaving Tri-State Airport in Huntington, West Virgina, and moving to the Rogue Valley last November was the possibilities for growth.

“I look at the historical trends, and the location relative to other airports,” Brienza said. “You could see it had a lot going for it. The in-migration patterns here are not only from California, but Arizona and Utah. When I looked at that, I saw a lot of potential.”

Alaska Air Group’s Horizon Air unit still owns 40 percent of the market share, but Delta and United continue to make inroads. In June, Alaska introduced its regular jet service to Seattle, providing more access for travelers connecting through Sea-Tac.

“Alaska has its pilot situation under control and has turned things around,” Brienza said.

Roughly a third of the airport’s 22 daily departures are scheduled by 6:30 a.m., with the rest spread throughout the day and the last Alaska plane to Portland leaving at 8:40 p.m.

“One thing that has surprised me is the high load factor (percentage of seats filled) on the aircraft,” Brienza said. “You can have a lot of flights, but it’s important to have a pretty consistent load factor.”

On-time flights and fewer cancellations have contributed to higher numbers as well.

“Most of the cancellations we’ve seen have been because of bad weather here or weather at the other end,” he said.

Oregon’s largest airports — Portland, Eugene, Redmond and Medford — are reaping the rewards of a strong economy and more residents.

“The airlines have really stuffed Oregon with a lot of flights the last few years,” he said. “All of our communications from the airlines indicate they are very happy with Oregon.”

The airport’s historical growth has been marked by momentum swings, one year to the next, punctuated by recessions — and 9/11. Record months were routine between 1996 and September 2001’s terrorist attacks. By 2004, the airport had regained its footing and 27 straight record months followed. Between March 2008 and September 2014, break-through months were sporadic, but 41 of the past 43 months have seen year-over-year growth.

Brienza sees parallel opportunities for different kinds of growth.

“People often think of commercial aviation when they think of airport managers, but we are economic developers as well. Our goal is to bring revenue to the airport by any means. We’re aggressively seeking companies looking to either expand or relocate here in the next five years.”

He is presently communicating with a half-dozen aerospace firms.

“Aerospace is anything to do with something that flies, including someone who makes brake pads for aircraft, manufactures aircraft or paints aircraft.”

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Passengers board a Delta flight at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport.