Taxis and shuttle vans line up in front of the Medford airport in June 2012, awaiting the arrival of afternoon flights. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Bob Pennell

Another record taxis into airport's view

Heading into the busiest months of the year, the Medford airport is primed to break its all-time annual record of 647,471 passengers in 2007, which capped four-straight record years before the Great Recession slammed on the brakes.

"I think everybody is doing a little better this year," Medford Airport Director Bern Case said Friday.

Medford saw a 6-year-old record shattered last month when 57,926 passengers passed through the gates. The previous May record was 56,398 set in 2007. Case said the airport is ahead of 2007, bettering February and March figures, as well. Commercial air activity in Medford is also 3.1 percent ahead of last year.

All four carriers reported increases, led by Delta Connection's 6.2 percent growth.

Since 1996, the May record has fallen eight times, and the previous seven were followed by multiple record months. Going back to 1978, every record May has been followed by a June record, as well.

Medford's 19 daily departures are the same as last year, but some of those 19 flights have more seats.

Other regional airports also are reporting increases.

In Eugene, Mahlon Sweet Airport has added two airlines — Frontier and American — to its lineup, and its daily departure total is now 24. Its passenger activity is 3.2 percent ahead of 2012's 826,517 total. "We've had two record years in a row, and we're on our way to a third," said Tim Doll, airport director at Mahlon Sweet. "For us, it's a matter of keeping more passengers here instead of flying out of Portland."

Gas prices bobbing around $4 at the pump are a motivator for flying out of nearby airports, but Doll suggested there are other factors entering into such decisions.

"Our parking fees are lower than in Portland, and it's much more convenient here," he said. "You can park near the front of the terminal, get through security and to the gates more quickly. You have shorter lines and shorter walks."

Beyond that, Doll attributed increased activity to a rebounding economy.

"People are more likely to use discretionary spending for travel if they feel a little more comfortable that the economy is coming out," Doll said. "It's been a long time since the 2008 economic dip."

Further north, Bellingham, Wash., has become a poster child for regional airport success. The airport, 20 minutes south of the Canadian border, hardly slowed during the recession, fueled by British Columbia travelers who quickly saw the financial advantages when Allegiant Air landed in 2004. Alaska Air aggressively countered the discounter's presence, attracting even more passengers.

"We've done fabulously since then," said Daniel Zenk, the Bellingham Port's aviation director. "Allegiant woke up this market and we've had 25 percent year-over-year growth since then. Over the next 20 years, we're still forecasting a 10 to 15 percent growth rate."

Concession revenue is growing, as well, he said.

Parking and car rental income has been steady here in the Rogue Valley, allowing Case to keep his staff intact when cuts hit other Jackson County units. The airport receives federal grant money, thus the income it generates has to be spent on the airport, he said. But it receives no general fund money from the county.

"We don't get any local taxes," Case said. "But we don't cost the community other than some money (fees) we get per ticket."

Reach Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at Edge.

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