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Airport numbers dropped as variant surged

file photo The Medford Airport has seen a reduction in flights since the pandemic began.

Passenger numbers at the Medford airport sagged in August and September as the COVID-19 delta variant surged after a return to nearly normal levels in July.

For the third quarter of 2021, passenger arrivals and departures were down by 11% compared to 2019, the last regular year, but up 53% over 2020 when the country entered the pandemic.

“We are doing about 10% better at least than U.S. airports in general,” said Alan Bender, a member of the airport advisory committee. “We are very isolated, so it’s not so easy to jump in a car as in other places.”

Bender taught aviation for Emery-Riddle Worldwide, based in Florida, for over 30 years and was recently named a professor emeritus. He flies regularly to teach, has published on aviation and transportation, and is an adjunct professor at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls.

More carriers in the market have helped bring competition, which has helped keep fare prices down, said Bender. The addition of Aha, with flights connecting to Reno beginning Oct. 31, adds a seventh carrier to the mix.

“We have better fares than we have had historically. There’s more competition than ever. It’s really unusual and very good that we have it,” said Bender.

In July, the airport saw 106,972 passengers, just 2% below the July 2019 total of 107,241. The highest total was in August 2019 with 109,427, and there have been just six months that exceeded the 100,000-passenger mark in airport history.

Passenger totals declined to 92,581 in August, 10% off the 2019 figure of 105,401, and September saw a further decline to 78,384, 18% below the 95,393 recorded in September 2019.

Judging from the increase that came before the delta variant became rampant, Bender expects to see a comeback, but it’s too early to say when that might occur. Much of the return, until the delta variant sparked a drawback, had come in leisure travel rather than from business trips.

In July, Allegiant and Avelo, airlines that target leisure customers, accounted for 20,961 travelers. In July 2019, when just Allegiant served the market, it recorded 11,243 passengers. Allegiant flies to Las Vegas and serves other markets during the summer, including San Diego. A reflection of its tourist status is the total of 6,259 passengers for both airlines in September.

In contrast, larger carriers Untied, Alaska and Delta had 73,219 passengers in July 2021, compared to 88,706 in July 2019.

“The vacation people have come back sooner and in bigger numbers than the corporate people,” said Bender. Large corporations are still worried about the liability of forcing workers to travel while the pandemic continues. Smaller mom-and-pop type business seem more willing to fly, he said.

Medford participated in the startup of the first new airline in the nation in well over a decade when Avelo began offering flights in May 2021.

“Folks are calling them pandemic airlines,” said Bender. Avelo emerged on the West Coast, and Breeze appeared on the East Coast as entrepreneurs took advantage of pullbacks in the market to step in and fill a need, said Bender.

“The big boys have pulled back in general. They have just cut back from 2019. Allegiant continues to expand.”

Aha represents a different strategy. It is a rebrand of planes owned by Express Jet that was contracted to United, which canceled their agreements. Flights to and from Reno will be Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays and take about 70 minutes with 50-seat Embraer jets.

“I don’t know how long Avelo and Aha will continue. Reno is within driving distance. Avelo is somewhat speculative. The had four flights, now they have two,” said Bender. Avelo serves the Los Angeles-area market, which also has flights by United, Alaska and Allegiant.

Alaska now offers only one direct flight per day to Portland, Bender noted. That’s because the airline is dialing back on the use of Portland as a second hub and focusing on Seattle. That leaves some Rogue Valley resident driving to Portland rather than flying to Seattle, then back-tracking to Portland.

Bender said airlines are listing flights from Medford months in advance to see if they attract passengers, then canceling them a couple months before departure if there are not enough takers. He recently had a holiday flight from Medford to Phoenix canceled.

“The biggest thing we don’t have is a nonstop to the Midwest,” said Bender. Second on the desirable list would be more affordable service to the Bay Area, perhaps to San Jose or Oakland, with flights by carriers other than United, which now goes to San Francisco.

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