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New options emerging at Medford airport

The dynamics are changing — subtly in some ways, more obvious in others — at the Medford airport, where travelers are drawn to new options.

One need look no farther than the American Eagle or Delta Connection ticket counters to see the impact.

Bolstered by American's foray into the market and Delta's new route to Seattle, Medford airport saw its best October ever, with 81,887 passengers coursing through the gates, topping last year's previous standard of 72,394 by 13.1 percent. Through 10 months, total passenger count of 743,751 was nearly 7.5 percent ahead of last year's all-time record of 822,289.

With Alaska Air Group curtailing Horizon Air departures to Portland and Seattle, and eliminating its Medford-Los Angeles route, American touched down in June — just in time sweep up Los Angeles passengers. American also snagged Arizona-bound travelers, heretofore choosing seasonal Allegiant flights to Mesa, rather than nearby Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, or forced to take circuitous routes in the fall and winter.

American Eagle flights accounted for nearly 7,500 passengers last month, while Delta Connection activity grew 34.34 percent, coming in just under 10,000 passengers.

"American gave us the added benefit of choice," said Chuck Brook of Express Travel. "American pricing was in line, or at least reasonable."

While Alaska's 12 departures are still the most, and the 29,140 paying passengers topped all-comers, United's two-year surge won't likely subside anytime soon.

"I think Alaska will hold on for this year," airport Director Bern Case said. "But sometime next year United, flying those bigger planes, is going to surpass Alaska."

Alaska has struggled to integrate Virgin Airlines into its system, and its executives admitted to mishandling the pilot shortage that has plagued the entire industry, leading to months of reduced schedules and route cuts. The latest casualty was jettisoning its much-publicized Los Angeles-Havana route.

Industry expert Alan Bender suggests it may take Alaska a while to recover lost ground, here and elsewhere.

Bender is an aeronautics professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide in Daytona Beach, Florida.

Alaska once partnered with Delta and American when it was considered a regional player. Now it goes head-to-head in major hubs. Competing in smaller markets, was one thing, Bender said.

"Head-to-head competition in transcontinental routes — Los Angeles-New York, San Francisco-New York, and Washington, those are premier markets."

Bender has called Ashland home for the past 13 years and spends 200 days a year flying to assignments. He teaches airline economics, air transportation system, research methods and statistics, airline operations and management, as well as airport management and planning.

Medford to Los Angeles is not so important among the big players, but getting passengers to hubs is.

The Q-400s Horizon Air pilots flew to Los Angeles weren't designed for long hauls.

"You can make two round trips to Portland and back in the time you make one trip to Los Angeles," Bender said. "For Alaska, Los Angeles is a dead-end, but from Portland and Seattle, there are scores and scores of connections."

Likewise,  Delta's Seattle flight has proved to be a winner.

"They're using larger planes, adding 40 percent capacity, and the pricing is really good," Bender said. "They want to stimulate traffic through the Seattle hub. It's perfect for connecting flights, because it leaves early and comes in late. The most favorable pricing is when you're going back east. Clearly, going to Salt Lake City makes more sense, but the pricing is more favorable."

"Certain people fly certain airlines," Brook said, invoking the Chevy/Ford loyalty argument.

"I've heard customers say it's nice that American is here, because when they fly United they encounter flight problems, and the weather conditions and runway problems at San Francisco."

Instead of having to fly north to Portland or Seattle, they now have the option to fly south, he said.

"It's a little closer to Hawaii and Miami."

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