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Airport numbers rise but still down sharply

Passenger traffic at the Medford airport increased during June as more travelers took to the skies in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, but numbers were still nowhere near what had been seen in recent years.

Total passenger numbers were down 70% from June 2019, with 15,643 arrivals and 15,944 departures.

In May, passenger numbers were down 84% compared to last year, and April was off 92% compared to 2019.

“If we are able to keep the current pace, July should figure ahead of June. We haven’t seen any real slowdown or negative effects in the recovery here at Medford,” said Jason Foster, air services and economic development manager for the facility, referring to the resurgence of COVID-19 cases nationally.

Across the country, a plateau in passenger traffic may have been reached, says Alan Bender, who lives in Ashland and has taught aviation courses for Emery-Riddle Worldwide, based in Florida, for more than 30 years. He flies regularly to teach and has published extensively on aviation, transportation and the environment.

“It isn’t clear that we are going to continue to come back at the rate of increase we have come back from since April,” said Bender. “It may plateau now. I don’t know. For some there’s a sense that it is plateauing because California is locking down again.”

Alaska Airlines announced Thursday it would offer daily, nonstop service between Medford and Los Angeles beginning in October, which may help increase Medford airport traffic. The carrier last provided service to Los Angeles in September 2017.

Passengers seeking to fly to Los Angles were left with just two weekly, direct connections when United and American Eagle ceased to fly the route during April as the industry cut back due to the pandemic. Allegiant continued to offer the connection, but those seeking other days had to route through another airport before getting to Los Angles.

“Los Angeles is our top destination,” said Foster.

An upcoming membership that Alaska had announced with Oneworld Alliance will provide connections globally that could be accessed through Los Angeles, he said.

Airlines have continued flying to most other cities that had been served from Medford prior the emergence of COVID-19, although there was a period with no direct service to Portland. Currently the airport is seeing about 14 arrivals and 14 departures most days, although those figure increase to 18 arrivals and departures Thursdays and Sundays when Allegiant adds four flights.

“We are getting back to more like our normal schedule,” said Foster. “There’s not as much midday traffic, but mornings and evenings have come back.”

Allegiant had the smallest passenger decline in June, serving 6,027 people, down 39%. Allegiant’s numbers may have been boosted by twice weekly service it began in June to San Diego. The flights are seasonal and are scheduled to end in the fall.

Alaska saw the biggest reduction in passengers, down 76% to 8,483. United served 6,759 passengers, down 53 percent. Delta served 7,263 passengers, down 67 percent, and American Eagle served 2,969 people, down 58%.

General consensus in the airline industry is that bookings have increased primarily due to leisure travel, said Foster.

Bender said he is flying again for his work. He said he sees planes that are usually at about 30% capacity. He only travels on airlines that do not fill middle seats to combat the spread of the coronavirus. That puts him primarily on Alaska and Southwest.

While he says he may be stereotyping, it appears most passengers are in the leisure category, as he sees more families and seniors. “I don’t see many people who look like ‘business people,’” said Bender.

Factors that had made Medford a strong regional location before the pandemic will likely continue in the long run, said Bender. Those include a location that has a good mix of passengers and the lack of a large discounter, such as Southwest, which might cut prices and drive other airlines away.

“I think that practically everyone is suffering, but realistically speaking I think (the Medford airport) will suffer less than other places,” said Bender. “We have a lot of retired people and it appears, COVID aside, retired people and families seek to be flying.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch The Medford Airport has seen a drastic reduction in flights.