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Airport traffic is rising from pandemic lows

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Flyer numbers were up by more than 40,000 in June compared to March as concerns about the pandemic declined and more normal patterns returned to the Medford airport.

In June, the airport saw 99,216 passengers, compared to 58,517 in March. In 2020 the airport served 53% fewer customers than in 2019.

“I think what is happening, we are more of a destination than you would think,” said Jerry Brienza, airport director. “A lot of people are coming from bigger cities to just get out and enjoy the great outdoors. It’s pretty much the leisure market that is triggering this increase.”

Traveler numbers for June were 92% of those recorded in June 2019, which saw 107,241. Brienza said he’s pleased with that figure because the national average was about 80%.

Business travel has not returned to prepandemic levels, said Brienza. Studies show that only about three-quarters of potential business travelers want to return to the skies.

Air traffic volume for the first six months of 2021 was at 372,571, down 25% from the first six months of 2019, which had 499,031 flyers. Both the decline of leisure travelers and potential travel cutbacks if the COVID-19 Delta variant prompts restrictions could bring lower numbers for fall and early winter months, said Brienza.

“Just about this time every year we will see a slight cutback in flight numbers because the summer is ending,” said Brienza. Airlines have already announced cutbacks of flights for the fall season starting in September. More flights are typically added back for holiday periods, then cutbacks occur again early in the following year.

June figures for all passengers totaled 99,216, down just 7.5% from the previous June high of 107,241 set in 2019. For May, there were 79,988 flyers compared to 93,395 in May 2019, a 14% decline. April saw 61,945 passengers, down 25% from 2019’s 82,474. In January, volume was off 49% compared to 2019, and it was down 42% for February compared to 2019. March saw volume off 29%.

The Los Angeles area remained the top destination for travelers from the Medford airport, with service to Los Angeles International, Hollywood-Burbank and Orange County.

New airline Avelo began services between Medford and Hollywood-Burbank in May. Passenger loads were just under 70% for the four flights per week offered initially, although the airline has now cut back to two per week.

“They are performing as they thought they would,” said Brienza. He said the initial flight numbers surprised him as they put more flights into Medford than other airports. Most travelers have Los Angeles as a destination, as Avelo doesn’t operate on a spoke and hub basis.

Highest loads are seen on American flights to Phoenix, which are running at 77% of capacity. Allegiant, which has been doing summer flights to Phoenix-Mesa airport, will add a flight during winter months due to demand, said Brienza.

Airport numbers have been increasing steadily after the low point of April 2020, when there were just 6,444 passengers. From July through December 2020 travel was off more than 50% each month except for October compared to 2019. September had the fewest passengers at 39,504, while October had the most at 49,641 for the second half of 2020.

In 2019, the airport recorded its most passengers at 1,087,873. The first year with more than a million passengers was 2018.

“It does worry me a little bit that the Delta cases are up and there’s potential for new lockdowns,” said Brienza. “We are hoping there’s not a federal lockdown, but we just don’t know at this point.”

Airport facilities are still under a federal mandate that requires wearing of masks both in the terminal and on airport grounds. Those mandates are scheduled to expire Sept. 13.

Work continues on a single, large stormwater detention pond being put in to service all airport facilities, replacing several smaller ones. In the past, anytime a building project was undertaken, a new pond was created. The larger facility will be able to deal with future airport expansion.

“It’s definitely more efficient,” said Brienza. The $3.5 million project is funded 93% by the federal government, with other funds coming from the state and the airport. The project should be finished by November.

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