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Airport rebounds from 2020, but down from record year

Passenger traffic at the Medford airport was up last year more than 74% from 2020. But the total of 866,870 travelers who arrived or departed on commercial flights was 18% less than the all-time high of 1,087,873 set in 2019.

Monthly counts varied throughout 2021 as COVID-19 variants emerged, bringing declines in traffic. Traveler numbers increased steadily through July, then went down in August and September. After a rebound in October, declines followed in November and December, which were off 26% compared to 2019.

“December numbers were a bit disappointing due to airlines canceling flights either from weather or omicron affecting their employees. Although Medford had some adverse weather, no flights were canceled because of poor conditions in Medford,” said airport Director Jerry Brienza.

July 2021 came closest to matching 2019 numbers, with 106,972 passengers versus 109,427 in 2019. The largest disparity was in January, when 36,117 passengers were counted last year, compared to 71,264 in January 2019.

Medford has fared well during the pandemic compared to other airports in terms of both customers and routes, the director said.

“We are definitely above average in terms of passenger numbers and our service levels compared to our peers. We did not lose any destinations during the pandemic, and as a matter of fact we added four new routes in the last two years,” said Brienza. “We have been fortunate and have not seen any major changes in air carrier service, excepting what normally fluctuates seasonally. The L.A. basin remains our top market.”

Business travel has not returned to the levels seen previously, said Brienza. Many companies still have travel restrictions, and conferences around the country are still being canceled, but to a lesser extent than last year.

Two new airlines began offering services to Medford last year. Avelo began flights to and from Burbank, California, in May. In late October, Aha started service to Reno, Nevada.

Aha recorded 1,114 arrivals and departures in just over two months of service three times per week. Avelo had 6,090 passengers for the final quarter of 2021 with twice-weekly service to Burbank.

“Both airlines are performing as expected. I don’t think either airline expected to have above average load factors coming in as startups during a pandemic,” said Brienza.

Traveler numbers in 2021 were up every month compared to 2020. May 2021 saw the biggest rebound of the year with 79,998 passengers compared to 6,444 in May 2020, the airport’s low point. December 2021 saw 69,146 passengers compared to 44,350 in December 2020.

A third TSA lane, planned before the pandemic struck, has opened. With passenger numbers still lower than 2019, combined with staffing shortages, the third lane at the airport has not seen much action, said Brienza.

Hunter Communications and the airport partnered in December on high-speed fiber-optic upgrades to give the Medford airport some of the fastest internet in the nation.

“With this upgrade, people will now be able to effortlessly use it to download videos, content or take a last-minute work video call before boarding their plane,” said Carey Cahill with Hunter Communications.

Overall airport operations, as measured by takeoffs and landings for all aircraft, rebounded to near 2019 levels after dropping in 2020. The airport saw 45,102 takeoffs and landings in 2021, 4% behind 2019’s 46,897.

Operations categories include air carriers, air taxis, general aviation and military. Local aircraft operations are classified as either civilian or military. Air carriers had 10,897 landings and takeoffs last year.

Several projects will be undertaken in 2022. The general aviation ramps will be expanded so that more hanger construction can occur. Crack sealing and seal coating will happen on the main runway, as well as updating of the runway lights to LEDs. The project will require a runway shutdown of 30 hours or more, and airport administration is in the process of coordinating that with the airlines and tenants.

Environmental clearances will be sought for the expansion of the east apron cargo ramp as well as the northwest hanger area complex.

The budget is stable and there were no layoffs last year, Brienza said. The airport has received three grants associated with the pandemic which have helped operations and maintenance continue without disruption to services.

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