There’s no telling how many people flew in and out of Medford in July that hadn’t planned on it a few months ago.
Perhaps they were firefighters flown in to fight the region’s wildfires, or maybe Rogue Valley residents took a look at the forecast and then checked their miles and booked a trip.
The scores of firefighters with backpacks wandering through the terminal, however, were mere window dressing when it came to tallying up the biggest month ever at the Medford airport.
The regional airfield continued its double-digit gains in July, soaring to an all-time monthly high of 105,954 passengers, a 17.8 percent jump over July 2017’s 89,948 figure.
“In the first place, we have a growing economy and a growing population here in the Rogue Valley,” said Ashland-based travel writer Ed Perkins. “As everybody around here knows, we’re about as far from any other big airport as any place in the country; four or five hours drive to get to a better airport. That means Rogue Valley airport captures almost 100 percent of the locally originated demand.”
Tourist traffic flows both ways from Southern Oregon, even with smoky skies and scorching heat.
“We’ve had a continuous period of relatively low airfares, if you’re not talking about San Francisco,” Perkins said. “That means air travel really has been, and still is, extremely affordable. So, it’s a combination of all positive factors that are leading to the growth here.”
To put the past two months in perspective, for all of 1982, the Medford airport saw 167,087 passengers. More than 200,000 have flown in and out of the Rogue Valley this June and July. July’s figure was more than double the July 2004 mark of 51,028.
For all the angst the wildfires and smoke have caused in the region, it hasn’t deterred air travel, said Alan Bender, aeronautics professor in the College of Arts and Sciences at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide in Daytona Beach, Florida.
“The airlines are supplying a lot more seats with good fares, and the economy is good,” Bender said. “We had smoke last year, and we had smoke two years ago. I don’t think it has had a significant impact, and certainly the airlines don’t plan on it when they’re adding tons of seats.”
Through seven months at the Medford airport, passenger counts are running 15 percent ahead of 2017 at 561,920. United’s mainline jets and United Express easily topped 40,000 passengers, while Delta cruised to its best month ever here with more than 15,000 travelers.
“The pie has gotten much bigger,” Bender said. “We’re just in an ideal place, in the sense carriers don’t have to worry about leakage to other airports like they do in Eugene. Within reason, they can charge what they want. While all the surrounding cities — Redding, Klamath Falls, and North Bend — have lost service or seen reduced service, Medford has truly become a much more significant part of the aviation landscape within a 200-mile radius.”
Despite a 13.6 percent year-over-year decline, Alaska Airlines still handled more than 32,000 travelers in July. While Alaska’s Horizon affiliate still has the most daily departures in the market, it only has one regional jet flying to “
“Alaska is not giving the smaller cities in the Northwest the attention they have in the past,” Bender said.
“As Horizon gets more regional jets, it will get more competitive, Bender said. “The question is whether Horizon will go for a second jet to Seattle.”
Bender thinks Alaska’s best shot to regain market share is opening a route to San Jose or San Diego.
“Alaska is still solving its integration problems with Virgin America and all the problems with Horizon,” he said. “So I don’t think you’ll see a lot more Horizon jets in Medford soon.”