The San Antonio airport was quiet Thursday evening, only a handful of staffers and passengers in the check-in area. Austin Maldonado, one of the few people getting ready to fly, checked his boarding pass and adjusted his face mask. He was headed to New Mexico to see his wife, he said. He works in San Antonio, so he flies back and forth every so often.

“I would limit my travel and not go back, but her birthday’s on the 31st, so this one I’ve got to make,” he said.

Like other airports around the country, the San Antonio airport is feeling the pinch from coronavirus. The City projects the San Antonio International Airport will lose an estimated $12 million to $22 million in revenue this year due to the novel coronavirus suppressing air travel, Assistant City Manager María Villagómez said at a Thursday City Council meeting. She stressed that these are preliminary numbers.

The airport makes its revenue from a variety of sources, including landing fees for airplanes, concessions, parking fees, and property leases. But the less air traffic the airport sees, the less the airport makes. And airlines have been responding to the dip in demand: Southwest Airlines announced Tuesday that it would cancel 1,500 flights out of its total 4,000 across the U.S. per day. In San Antonio, that translates to about 32 percent of the flights the airline offers.

“What they’ve really tried to do is avoid market exits as a whole – literally stopping flights from San Antonio to X, Y, Z,” said Brian Pratte, chief air service development officer.

El Paso flights to and from San Antonio were eliminated in Southwest’s move, Pratte said. Southwest also cut down on flights to Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Nashville, and St. Louis in its April schedule, a temporary measure, Pratte said. The other carriers operating out of the airport have also tried to reduce flight frequencies and toyed with using smaller planes, all in an attempt to “to keep connectivity there while trying to minimize losses.”

San Antonio International Airport's largest carrier, Southwest Airlines, is canceling more than 1,000 flights in response to coronavirus.
San Antonio International Airport’s largest carrier, Southwest Airlines, is canceling more than 1,000 flights in response to coronavirus. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Southwest is responsible for about 40 percent of the flights going through San Antonio. United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Allegiant Air, Sun Country Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Interjet, Volaris, and Air Mexico make up the other 60 percent. United also recently announced a major reduction in flights. On Wednesday, the company said it would cut 52 percent of its domestic flight schedule. That translated to about a 38 percent cut of its San Antonio flights, Pratte said.

American Airlines announced a 34 percent reduction in its international flight schedules during the summer. Southwest Airlines eliminated international travel entirely starting last Sunday, while United said it would cut back on international travel by 85 percent in April.

As airlines are rolling out new flight plans, those schedules are hard to keep track of, Pratte said.

“On a daily basis, airlines across the country – not just in San Antonio – are making cancellations for 24 or 48 hours out of individual flights,” he said. “What we see in schedule may be there on paper, but what actually operates varies from day to day.”

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The airport has been modeling different scenarios, based on different timelines of when people would be traveling by air again, Pratte said. The decline in ridership happened rapidly, he added. At the beginning of March, airplanes filled 90 percent or more of their seats. That ridership rate dropped less than two weeks into the month.

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“It really wasn’t until I would say the 10th of the month … that we started seeing numbers drop relatively quickly – from 70 percent load factors to about 20, or 20 percent of [what] would have been scheduled,” he said.

But that’s only about two weeks of passenger data since COVID-19 began keeping people away from the airports, Pratte said. Airport administration is committed to keeping the facilities open and continuing operations.

“Operations are obviously our number one priority,” he said. “With safety and security and all that, that’s certainly on the forefront. As it comes down to airline schedules, no airport in the country is immune right now.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the Rivard Report.