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Airport numbers improve in March

Passengers unload from an Alaska/Horizon flight at the Medford airport. Alaska canceled 20 flights in July because of a pilot shortage. [MT file photo]

Passenger numbers were down by less than one-third at the Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport in March after an eight-month period when they were off in high 40% to high 50% ranges due to the pandemic.

In March, 58,917 passengers either arrived or departed at the Medford airport, a 28% drop from the 81,496 passengers in March 2019. In March 2020, the airport saw a 49% passenger decrease as concerns about the COVID-19 virus began to cut into travel.

“It’s not just us. Nationwide this has happened,” said Jerry Brienza, airport director. Figures to date for April show there may be a slight decline, but Brienza said that is typical for the month following spring break.

Several factors have helped keep the airport operating at a higher level than the national average during the pandemic, he said.

For all of 2020 Medford saw a 53% reduction in passengers compared to the national average of 63%. Numbers released recently by the Federal Aviation Administration for the Pacific Northwest showed that the airport had the ninth-lowest loss of passengers of 25 locations on a percentage basis.

“We are a little stronger because we have become a destination area. We have a lot of outdoor activities where people are trying to get away from cities,” said Brienza.

Remoteness from other airports may also be a factor, said Brienza. For many passengers Medford is the only choice, which may help the airport avoid high and low points in travel numbers compared to other locations, he said.

Service to a fourth airport in Southern California was announced earlier this month, and the airport is seeking a federal grant that would support flights to and from Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas. The latest addition brings service to 11 destinations and 12 different airports.

Passenger numbers were down 51% in January of this year and 47% in February compared to the 2020 numbers. For the year through March, the airport hosted 131,421 passengers, down from 215,921 for the same three-month period in 2019.

Passenger percentage decreases in 2020 compared to the previous year were April, 92%; May, 84%; June, 70%; July, 59%; August, 55%; September, 58%; October, 49%; November, 58%; and December, 53%. For 2020 the airport saw a 53% decrease in passengers to 508,729, down from 1,087,873 in 2019, which was a record.

Air traffic numbers in January and February 2020 had continued a trend of increases up 5% and 10% respectively. The airport had seen growth for 60 of 62 months until March 2020. Total passenger numbers for 2020 were 508,728, down 53% from the 1,087,873 recorded for 2019.

An application has been made for a federal Department of Transportation $750,000 grant to support flights by American to Dallas-Fort Worth. The grant would be used for a minimum revenue guarantee. A match of $250,000 would be put up by the airport and businesses that support the route. Dallas-Fort Worth would supply connections for business travelers going east, said Brienza.

Start-up airline Avelo will offer four flights per week between Medford and the Hollywood-Burbank airport beginning May 9. The airline flies 189-seat Boeing 737-800 aircraft and is serving 10 other communities.

“Avelo would not have put an aircraft in here if they didn’t think it would work out,” said Brienza. “It appears they have a strategy to make money.”

Allegiant has flights to John Wayne Orange County airport and Los Angeles International. It also serves San Diego on a seasonal basis. United and Alaska also have flights to Los Angeles.

Allegiant began service to Orange County in February. The airline is happy with passenger numbers there so far, said Brienza. He said both Allegiant and Avelo are likely expecting increases of travelers as amusement centers such as Disneyland reopen with pandemic restriction decreases.

Resumption of business travel is lagging behind leisure fliers, said Brienza. While some industry experts are predicting a return of substantial business travel by fall, Brienza said he is more conservative and thinks companies are looking at keeping a lot of people at home. More people moving to the area will help make up for a loss of business travel, he said.

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