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Passengers wait Friday at the Medford airport. Statistics show flight cancellations at the airport have dropped the past two years compared with the 10-year average. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]

Friendlier skies

Anyone who regularly flies out of the Medford airport, or any airport for that matter, knows the routine.

You nervously watch the departure screen as boarding time approaches, hoping those two not-so-magical words — "Delayed" or "Canceled" — don't flash on the display.

Once your carry-on is stored and seat belt buckled, there is still a hint of angst — especially if you're headed for San Francisco International — until the plane rolls down the runway.

That angst has diminished in the past two years, with cancellations cut about in half from 10-year averages. Medford saw 57 flights canceled in 2017 after recording 46 in 2016, both marks well below the 10-year average of 107 cancellations.

The drop is attributable largely to the larger planes being flown out of the airport.

"United is the best example of why we're doing better overall, because of the bigger aircraft they've been flying," said Alan Bender, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor who lives in Ashland. "The general rule is that airlines are less likely to cancel a big plane than a little plane."

Horizon Air's pilot shortage in 2017 played a big role in the increased number of canceled flights in 2017 over 2016.

Horizon Air canceled thousands of flights throughout its system and abandoned some routes altogether last year. The frequencies of departures to Portland and Seattle fell in Medford, while flights to Los Angeles ended.

"Horizon Air has been in a league of their own because of their pilot shortage problems," Bender said. "They're still the biggest carrier in Medford, even though they're slipping."

Departures from the Rogue Valley have been on time more than 80 percent the past three years, an improvement over the 10-year average of 76.1 percent. For comparison, according to InsureMyTrip.com, about three-quarters of flights departing San Francisco International are delayed.

"I think the industry is trying as hard as it can, within reasonable cost constraints," Ashland-based travel writer Ed Perkins said. "Cancellations don't help airlines either, because it throws off their downstream needs. They can't use an airplane if it's stuck at a different terminal."

Weather is generally the biggest factor in delays across the country, with fog, snow and thunderstorms all contributing.

"We're in a zone where sometimes we have bad weather, but not as bad as a lot of places," Perkins said.

Medford departures headed to the Bay Area not only have to deal with Rogue Valley weather, but also have to get clearance from controllers in San Francisco, where weather-related issues frequently close runways.

A decade ago, the U.S. Transportation Department pressured airlines, with the threat of fines of up to $26,000 per passenger, to reduce tarmac delays that had caused travelers to be stuck in planes without water or functioning bathrooms for more than three hours.

"I've had delays in my travels in every possible way," Bender said. "Two weeks ago, the tow-bar snapped during the push back."

Overall, Medford is in line with most airports when it comes to cancellations, but delays, mechanical or otherwise, are harder to control.

"I think it's clear at some fundamental level that the big-network airlines could do a substantially better job of managing their assets — how they're deployed and controlled — than they do," Bender said. "But it would also probably involve significant operational and management changes."

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

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