Commentary: Austin, San Antonio Would Benefit From a Regional Airport

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A baggage handler transports luggage in terminal A. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The San Antonio International Airport in June served the highest number of customers during any month in the history of the airport.

Austin and San Antonio are practically running toward one another on Interstate 35. By 2040, our two great metro areas will be the poles of a mega regional economy.

Texas demographer Steve Murdock previewed that future in an interview with the Dallas Morning News last May.

“These might be two metropolitan statistical areas,” Murdock said, “but they’ll be linked in such a way that I don’t know whether people realize when they’ve left one to get to the other.”

In other words, our region is going to look more and more like the Metroplex in North Texas, home to nearly seven million residents and book-ended by Dallas and Fort Worth.

It’s time to start planning accordingly. Indeed, it’s almost past time.

We need to seriously discuss the creation of a regional airport, a DFW for Central Texas.

As a San Antonio City Councilmember and a long-time advocate of regional cooperation, I have talked with our mayor, Ivy Taylor, and Austin’s mayor, Steve Adler, about appointing a blue-ribbon panel to explore the idea. I strongly urge the mayors to proceed. Imagine getting on a plane somewhere between Austin and San Antonio and stepping off in Tokyo, Moscow or Paris.

On Sept. 3, I was a panelist at the annual Austin-San Antonio Growth Summit in San Marcos, where both mayors delivered key-note speeches. I’ve participated in this event since its inception, and this year we had our largest crowd yet – more than 600 people. The possibility of a regional airport and LSTAR commuter rail service between Austin and San Antonio, which I also wholeheartedly support, were the hottest topics.

The event’s success was another indication that major employers, elected officials, and others thinking about collaboration as the best way to tackle our regional transportation needs – the ones we have now and will have 25 years from now.

Terminal A. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Terminal A. Photo by Scott Ball.

Some may ask about the timing of this discussion. After all, Austin and San Antonio are currently investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their existing airports, including the construction of consolidated rental-car facilities. That’s because both cities recognize how crucial thriving, modern airports are to their economic vitality, which ultimately translates to new and retained jobs and rising standards of living.

However, improving Austin-Bergstrom and San Antonio International airports and planning for the region’s future shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

Our two cities have very different economies, both of which are thriving.

San Antonio boasts strong health-care and tourism industries; five military installations, including the heart of the Defense Department’s health-care system at Fort Sam Houston; and growing cybersecurity and cloud-computing sectors.

Austin is the nucleus of the University of Texas System and home to numerous Internet companies. The Capitol City also has developed an enviable creative economy. South by Southwest, Austin City Limits, and Formula 1 racing have cemented the city’s international reputation.

The Austin-Bergstrom and San Antonio airports are integral to the success of these cities.

Yet careful study of our metro areas’ growth patterns and population projections will likely show the importance of a regional airport in coming years – and that it could help make Central Texas a global economic powerhouse on the order of the Metroplex.

The Austin metro area could grow from 1.7 million in 2010 to 2.7 million in 2030 – and that’s a moderate projection. Over the same period, the San Antonio area’s population is expected to increase to 2.8 million from 2.2 million. All told, that’s roughly 1.6 million new people taking up residence in our region within the next 15 years.

Small wonder that San Marcos has been the fastest-growing city in the United States in the last three years.

Planes take off and are towed on the runway. Photo by Scott Ball.

Planes take off and are towed on the runway. Photo by Scott Ball.

This is why I believe we’re coming to the topic of a regional airport either just in the nick of time or a little late, depending on where you land on the optimism-pessimism spectrum.

DFW International Airport’s history would be a helpful guide for our region. More than five decades ago, elected officials and business and community leaders across the Metroplex looked into the future, saw the need, and acted. At an initial cost of $700 million, the airport opened in 1974 with 66 gates. In the ensuing 41 years, it has added 99 gates and grown into the ninth largest airport in the world by number of passengers.

Today, it’s almost impossible to imagine North Texas and its booming economy without DFW at the heart of it all.

Dallas, Fort Worth, and the cities honeycombed around them came together and planned for their prosperity. We must do the same in our region.

To get the conversation started, I’d like to propose one name I think many of us could agree on: the Willie Nelson International Airport.


This piece originally appeared in TribTalk, a publication of The Texas Tribune. It has been republished with permission.

*Top image: A baggage handler transports luggage in terminal A.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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20 thoughts on “Commentary: Austin, San Antonio Would Benefit From a Regional Airport

  1. An airport in San Marcos would be over 50 miles from downtown SA. It would kill our tourist industry and make it more difficult for corporate travelers to get to SA.

    • You forget thriving business and tourist cities have at least two big airports. I paid $198 one way last week Chicago /Austin instead of $461 to San Antonio. In Aug. my roundtrip through San Antonio was about $250, but Austin was over $500 when I wanted to go. Very often i fly into one and out the other.

      A better project if you want increased economic growth and flights…instead of helping someone on a land play and increased sprawl and industrial parks that tend to develop nearby is connect downtown San Antonio, New Braunfels, and San Marcos and Austin through each airport. No other stops.

      • 24/7 every 15 minutes. They can shorten train at 12 to 4am for cleaning/maintenance. Regular frequent service helps hotel, airport, restaurant, bar, and other night service workers and would create backbone for connecting bus or rail at each city to parking and extended routes as population density allows. Cost less and achieve more.

  2. I respectfully disagree that a combined Austin-San Antonio regional airport is needed.

    There’s no benefit to Austin since they have a very nice airport with new facilities and room to grow. I also don’t think people in either San Antonio or Austin would want to drive 50 miles for an airport, particularly when the most popular flights are to places like Houston or Dallas. A regional airport would cause both Austin and San Antonio’s taxpayers to willfully push future business development to another city and county.

    In San Antonio, we have an underused 11,500 foot runway at Port San Antonio that can handle the largest and heaviest aircraft. There’s plenty of space for redevelopment, it’s close in to downtown, accessible, and it’s on the proposed LSTAR route. It’s a convenient location for the city’s tourism and military activity.

    If we were to close SAT in favor of a Port San Antonio airport, I expect that would open up the old airport property–some of the most valuable real estate in the city–to high-quality redevelopment. It could improve the overall economy of the west side as well. I think this could be done without disrupting the industrial tenants at the site.

  3. This is a terrible idea (particularly for Austin), will never happen, and was explicitly rejected nearly two decades ago when Austin built Bergstrom Airport. The DFW comparison is totally inapt – Dallas and Fort Forth are only 32 miles from center to center; Austin and San Antonio are 80 miles and almost 1.5 hours apart (without traffic), which means 40 miles (minimum) to this proposed merged airport. The more apt comparison is Baltimore Airport, which is only 33 miles from downtown DC, yet must vastly discount tickets to try to fill seats – passengers much prefer National Airport, or even Dulles. San Antonio and Austin are already part of one mega region – just like New York and Philadelphia, which are only 95 miles apart – yet neither mega region should be sharing an airport. San Antonio should focus on ticket prices, runway lengthening, and customer experience at its nice, central airport, where passenger numbers have been flat for a DECADE. I would start by widening and modernizing the claustrophobic terminals, and fixing the awful traffic flow in the arrivals pickup area. While a San Marcos airport would allow San Antonio to free-ride off of traffic generated by more prosperous, more flying, and soon to be more populous Austin, there is absolutely no incentive for Austin to join in such a White Elephant project. Let’s focus our efforts on local economic development and improvements that will make SAT viable in its own right – essentially flat passenger numbers for a DECADE, in the midst of economic expansion, are not indicative of the need for a brand new, outlying, inaccessible airport (or the long term viability of SAT). Honestly, whenever I read about San Antonio bugging Austin about this project, which will never happen, I feel a little bit embarrassed. Here are the statistics:

  4. To all of you dreamers who think this is such a bright idea, pls consider:

    1. Austin can now support a single daily flight (British Airways) to Europe. If this totally unrealistic Krier boondoggle was to happen, there’s no way the joint airport could support non-stop srvc to Tokyo, Moscow, etc. That is pure hogwash.

    2. This may well be Krier’s way of covering up for CoSA’s Aviation Dept’s laziness in attracting new carriers here vis-a-vis Austin’s go-getter attitude. It’s the difference between chicken salad and chicken s#%@.

    3. To everyone who thinks this is a bright idea: if you live in SA, especially downtown or southside, would you really drive 50+ miles to San Marcos to catch a flt to Dallas or Houston?? I seriously doubt it and if you would check the DoT’s origin-destination stats you will find that those 2 cities are the top 2 destinations from SAT. A regional ap would be a total disaster for SA travellers and it would be an utter catastrophe for our convention and tourism industries.

    This idea, however well intentioned, is very, very poorly thought out. It’s almost like the President of the Chamber of Commerce who knows zero about the airline and tourism industry hatched this ill-conceived idea without any outside expertise. Oh, wait a second. I just realized…

  5. Sometimes “bigger” is not better. As long as there is the TSA wasting millions/billions on security theatre it’s not worth consolidating all that into one centralized airport with 1 contract negotiation.

    Also, air travel isn’t the best for the environment, and why is it really good to be able to be in Austin in the morning the Moscow or Tokyo at night?? Why isn’t email or webinar more productive or cost efficient and better for the environment?? I travel every week around the country – most of my trips really could be handled with a phone call and file sharing. I love to travel, meet people, and keep in touch, but why waste the money that could be spent making day to day lives meaningful and wonderful just living in place?

    Just as people came to realize that the Olympics and public subsidies for billionaire sport team owners is redistribution of weath,,, so people realize that quality of life is more important that quantity. Let DFW live in a hell hole of NOT-NYC NOT-San Antonio. They have to tread that rat race because the airport gives them the “opportunity they can’t say no to”… since they already spent the money that could have been spent on parks, schools, and lowering property taxes in general.

    But that’s just me.

  6. Krier is the same guy behind the hugely expensive and unnecessary 3.4 billion dollar Vista Ridge water pipeline that would allow developers to sprawl and sprawl some more over the aquifer recharge zone.. Krier is trying to transform the SA-Austin corridor into a megalopilis similar to Los Angeles. The sooner Krier Retires the better off SA will be. We want to be a livable, sustainable city, not a sprawling city of lameness.

  7. This is a horrible idea. I think Travel Industry Vet and Nick summed it up perfectly. I live downtown adjacent and I actually use both airports when prices are competitive or if I need to go somewhere that isn’t a direct route at SAT. A regional airport at San Marcos or Cibolo or somewhere like that is just overkill. If they want to pursue this dream of linking ATX and SATX then how about we stop dragging ass and wasting money with the Lone Star project and get this thing built already. It’s annoying to think that if this was East Asia (China, Korea, Japan) or even Europe, that the Lone Star would have been decided on and built ages ago. I hate the inefficiency of American bureaucracy!

    Also Thomas H, I’m glad that you recognize that Port SA has ample unused runway space, but I think it would be an equally bad idea to scrap an already established airport (even for valuable real estate… which is there because of the airport) in favor of the Port. HOWEVER, I will say that in the event that SAT outstrips it’s capacity to expand, Port SA can well serve as our secondary international airport. Plenty of large cities have evidence of this working; New York, Chicago, London, Miami-Ft. Lauderdale (this one is more of a Metroplex situation but still). And let’s not forget that if SATX is eager to reduce the flow of traffic at SAT we still have Stinson Airport that can be developed into a true Regional Airport with domestic flights to popular destinations in the South/ Southwest.

    The point is lets exhaust development on resources and infrastructure already existent in SATX before we embark on any more boondoggle projects.

  8. Councilman Krier,
    Forgive me for not fully understanding your position, but this sounds like the aviation equivalent to SH 130. do you believe that citizens would really prefer driving farther in order to avoid the current hassles? I’m not sure you’re going to find many folks that want to trade one problem for another.

  9. Wow! I really appreciate everyone’s comments. When I first read the article it made sense because I thought the Dallas-Fort Worth example was instructive . Mind sufficiently changed.

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