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United once again tops at Medford airport

United Air Lines led the passenger counts at the Medford airport in June, displacing Alaska Air Lines for the first time since October 2010.

Propelled by a 62.2 percent boost in its United Express/Skywest component and a 24.6 percent jump in its mainline operations out of Medford, United handled nearly 37,000 passengers last month, while Alaska Air slipped 11.2 percent to just under 34,000.

Overall, the airport came within a couple of Airbus loads of its first 100,000-passenger month, but still smashed the all-time monthly record as 99,721 travelers passed through the gates in June. The previous monthly record of 92,040 was set last August. The June 2017 standard of 86,828 was topped by 14.8 percent.

“United is driving those numbers,” Airport Director Jerry Brienza said. “Alaska dropped a bit, they’re not pushing the market as much as we hoped they would. But it still tells me they feel the market is strong and they’re comfortable with their market share.”

Earlier this week, preliminary 2017 numbers from the Federal Aviation Administration ranked Medford No. 131 among the nation’s busiest airports. Medford is now considered a small-hub primary airport, making it one of 70 airfields in a classification that includes Memphis, Reno, Long Beach, Spokane, Louisville, Tulsa and Colorado Springs.

Last year, Medford was No. 136 and was considered a primary non-hub airport.

“There is certainly a bigger pie than last year, because United has added a ton of seats,” said Alan Bender, aeronautics professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide in Daytona Beach, Florida. “All the major carriers are going after small- and medium-size markets, where they can get higher fares. We’re probably looking at 15 percent more seats, and I’m guessing their planes are pretty full.”

Among its nine daily departures, United is flying 150-passenger Airbus 320s to Denver and 128-passenger Boeing 737s to San Francisco every morning. It’s also making two nonstop runs to Los Angeles International.

“That was a significant addition to their schedule,” said Ashland-based travel writer Ed Perkins. “Apparently, they decided they could make some money flying from here to LA and filling a vacuum that Alaska has been unwilling to do — or had to sacrifice some of their capacity — just because they couldn’t fly it.”

Delta Connection was the only other carrier to show growth last month as it pushed past 13,000 passengers and stepped up its competition with Alaska in Seattle and other hubs. Bender said he expects to see both legacy airlines keep up the pressure.

“Carriers like American, Delta and United can smell blood, and they can see Alaska is in trouble and has had to cut service,” Bender said. “As long as (Alaska) is in a retrenching mode, they’ll be taking advantage of that situation, not just in Medford, but other Northwest cities.”

Bender, however, suggested a pendulum swing as winter approaches. He pointed out that air travel nationally tends to flow east and west during the summer and north and south during the winter.

“United is primarily an east-west airline and Alaska is north-south,” Bender said. “East-west travel tends to dry up in the winter. Unless something happens, Alaska will probably be back this winter, but United will be No. 1 year-round probably in a couple of years because it’s operating big jets.”

Brienza said the airport will pursue FAA funding for a Small Community Air Service Development Grant, which could allow the airport to seek new destinations or new service.

“There is different criteria every year, typically to subsidize airlines for certain service, guarantee revenue or marketing money,” Brienza said. “You could get a grant that would allow you to market certain cities. It’s a good tool in the box when you are recruiting a certain area.”

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.

Mail Tribune / file photoPassengers unload from a United flight after landing at the Medford airport.{ }