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1 million passengers: That's a lot of baggage

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Molly Troup is truly one in a million.

Friday afternoon, she became the millionth commercial air passenger to walk through the gates of the Medford airport.

United Flight 5398 from Los Angeles International may have been seven minutes late touching down for its 12:49 p.m. arrival in the Rogue Valley, but it was right on time for Troup, who was returning from her parents’ 60th anniversary celebration.

Troup was greeted with fanfare, free round-trip tickets, a speech or two, and video cameras, marking the long-anticipated occasion.

With the milestone duly noted, the nation’s 131st-busiest airport is looking to the future.

“We’ve been growing at an exponential rate compared to the rest of the country,” airport Director Jerry Brienza said in an interview. “Our growth rate will end up over 12 percent this year, which is phenomenal for a community our size.”

With Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta and United competing in the market, more seats are available for travelers.

“It’s really a credit to them,” Brienza said. “They saw the opportunity probably way before a lot of our community saw the growth and opportunity.”

Most future passenger growth will be handled by existing carriers adding departures and relying on large airplanes.

“We have most of the majors here, excepting Southwest,” Brienza said. “We don’t quite fit their model right now, but in the future we hope they change their model, which is what they’re suggesting.”

At present, Southwest’s approach is flying to cities where there are six departures (and arrivals) daily, something that only works in major metropolitan markets.

“They’re changing their model to where they can do less than daily service,” he said. “That means they can almost be like an Allegiant and provide service a few days a week to certain destinations.”

A regional airport with a handful of daily departures to two or three hub cities has one great advantage — it doesn’t take long to park, check in, clear security and board the flight.

The Rogue Valley no longer fits into that paradigm. It wasn’t that long ago that United was shuttling passengers — north and south — in 18-passenger Embraer EMB 120s. If it was foggy in San Francisco, flights were often canceled.

Brienza, who has been on the job for 13 months, said he’s heard a general refrain: “We love your airport, because we can get there 45 minutes or an hour before our flight and get through.”

“There are a lot of people who have made that mistake and miss their flight,” he said. “They’re thinking small, because they’re used to small, but now they have to think larger.”

Airport officials are working with TSA to expand the security entrance, including a dedicated pre-check line, two regular lines and a third X-ray machine.

A second jet bridge, accommodating the largest airliners at the terminal, has been designed and will likely be placed at Gate 2.

“Next year we plan to get a construction grant from the FAA so we can order it and install it,” Brienza said.

Along with the jetway, the ramp area will be restriped to accommodate mainline aircraft three abreast. Although airlines have preferential-use gates, to this point the county-owned airport hasn’t offered exclusive-use gates, leaving the airlines to sort out their own ramp priorities.

“We would only get involved if they have some sort of a disagreement, and we haven’t had to get involved to this date,” Brienza said. “Typically, the larger the aircraft the more seniority they have for the jetway. So we want to give them another option.”

Exclusive-use gates could occur in the middle of the next decade if the airport stays on its present trajectory, and the terminal is expanded.

Next year, the airport administration will launch a master plan study, looking ahead to the next 20 years.

“We’re excited to see what suggestions they have to expand our ramp and terminal space,” he said.

One thing the airport lacks is storage for airline equipment. Without space for another building close to the terminal, Brienza said, the short-term solution will use repurposed shipping containers known as Conex boxes.

One immediate change, coming in January, is that the Sky House Bar & Grill will begin an expansion project that will put 48 seats on the secure side, boosting capacity by 25 percent.

“The one thing we hate is when the restaurant is absolutely full and people have to wait or be turned away,” Brienza said.

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

Molly Troup, Medford airport's millionth 2018 passenger.
Molly Troup, Medford airport's millionth 2018 passenger.