In early March, passenger traffic at the San Antonio International Airport (SAT) was on track to surpass last year’s numbers.

But by the end of the month, the number of people traveling through the airport was nearly half that of March 2019, and by April, arrivals and departures had fallen 95 percent.

The globetrotting coronavirus pandemic forced a precipitous decline of passengers at airports around the world, including San Antonio’s airport. A return to 2019 travel levels isn’t expected until at least 2023, according to an economist with the International Air Transport Association.

While Memorial Day weekend travel and the coming vacation season has resulted in upward trends, it’s anyone’s guess when local airport traffic will return to what had been record-breaking passenger counts the last several years.

“It’s a crystal ball that I think everyone wishes they had in their possession,” said Jesus Saenz, director of airports for the City of San Antonio since Feb. 3.

In the meantime, as stay-at-home orders are lifted, travel restrictions end, and the industry waits for consumer confidence to return, officials in San Antonio are planning how to spend federal relief funds intended to make up for lost revenue. San Antonio is expected to receive $39 million and Austin $58 million for airport operations, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The funding is designed to not only support continuing operations and replace lost revenue during the COVID-19 crisis, but also could be used for payroll, capital expenses, and debt payments.

On Friday, Saenz met with airport leaders to review current operations and develop what he called “a winning formula” for a post-COVID-19 period when passengers return to the airport. But he said it was too early to determine exactly how the money will be used.

“We’re going to do everything we can to utilize that stimulus package to ensure that we have sustainability not only in the present year but as we look outwardly … to ensure that we have financial stability and a good net cash position not only in 2020 but for the next three years,” Saenz said.

2019 produced record-breaking passenger numbers for the San Antonio airport, with 10.3 million passengers using the airport and several airlines announcing added routes and new nonstop service.

In February, typically the slowest travel month of the year, more than 704,000 passengers traveled in and out of the airport, matching February 2019’s numbers. By March, passenger counts had dropped to 420,000, less than half that of the same month in 2019.

In April, passenger totals had plummeted to just 42,000. Last year’s count was more than 20 times that.

During the week of May 17, the Transportation Security Administration was screening 2,000 outbound passengers a day for a total of 33 daily departures. In normal peak months, SAT sees 144 departures and 25,000 passengers a day.

Every airline that services San Antonio has temporarily discontinued routes or cut capacity (the number of flights or seats), said Brian Pratte, chief air service development officer.

Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, which is responsible for about 40 percent of the flights going through San Antonio, said on May 22 the airline is planning to reduce total capacity by 30 percent. Southwest is also limiting bookings on each flight through July to allow more space between passengers in airplane cabins.

Like most tourism and travel-related industries, the airlines, and airports with them, have been financially hard hit by the pandemic. One trade group, the International Air Transport Association, has forecast commercial airline losses of $314 billion in revenues and half of their passengers this year.

Since air travel bottomed out in mid-April, however, there’s been steady growth upward in the number of SAT passengers, Pratte said. Nationally, TSA has seen the number of travelers increase from a low of 87,534 on April 14 to 340,769 on May 25.

During the traditional kickoff to summer, Memorial Day weekend, May 22 to 25, TSA checkpoints processed 1.2 million travelers, up from 941,000 the prior weekend. (In 2019, the holiday weekend had 9.5 million travelers.)

There are other signs that travel is increasing as well, he said. In June, American Airlines plans to bring back nonstop service to Miami, and Aeromexico confirmed last week it will restore its three-flights-a-week service to Mexico starting June 18.

And Southwest is planning to add capacity it had reduced in May to its Nashville, Dallas, Houston, Las Vegas, Orlando, Chicago, and Phoenix flights.

Along with smaller-than-usual crowds and plenty of available parking spaces at the airport, San Antonio travelers can also expect other changes intended to protect the health of passengers and airport workers.

Acrylic shields have been installed at ticket counters and other areas, and seating has been reduced and moved apart. Signage reminds travelers to remain 6 feet apart when standing in lines. In addition to the usual gate change and departures announcements, passengers will also hear reminders to practice social distancing and hand washing.

Airport employees are required to wear face masks and passengers are encouraged to do so, according to directives by the City of San Antonio and Metro Health.

TSA agents also are wearing masks, and to reduce cross-contamination, travelers are advised to place boarding passes on the pass reader themselves, then hold the pass toward the officer for inspection.

TSA is permitting one 12-ounce bottle of hand sanitizer per passenger in carry-on bags, and the state is relaxing other rules instituted since travel restrictions were put in place.

Every day brings new developments and decisions by government and public health leaders to control the local coronavirus outbreak. We strive to be a trustworthy news source for all in the community–especially during this tumultuous time.

You rely on us for credible reporting, and we rely on readers like you to support our nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on you?

Our reporters are risking a lot to be on the streets chronicling this unprecedented crisis and its impact on our health care systems, local economy, and daily lives. We've been asking our readers to show support for this important public service by making a monthly donation or a one-time gift in whatever amount you can afford.

These donations are helping offset the loss of advertising revenue we normally rely on from local businesses. Can we count on you?

Starting May 21, passengers arriving in Texas from travel-restricted areas such as California and New York are no longer being asked to complete quarantine forms as previously mandated by Gov. Greg Abbott’s orders.

But more than half of the airport’s food and beverage concessions and retail stores, including Boss Bagel and Gervin’s Sports Bar, remain closed. Those that are open include Marcy’s, Express News, Auntie Anne’s, and Local Coffee in Terminal A, and Charley’s Grilled Subs, Green Beans, Bon Du Monde, Stars of San Antonio, Express News, and Starbucks in Terminal B.

Eight of the airport’s 13 car rental companies remain open: Enterprise, Hertz, AVIS, Budget, Advantage, EZ, Sixt, and Fox.

Saenz said the airport leadership team continues to discuss the Airport Strategic Development Plan, which included a land study that was expected to be completed this year. But for now, the top priority is travelers’ well-being and safety.

“We expect [passenger numbers] to continue to grow until we get back to whatever that new normal number is going to be, and we’ll continue to work collaboratively with all of our stakeholders and federal agencies, and most importantly with our airlines to do everything possible to ensure that when people traverse our facilities, they feel safe,” he said.

“It’s just going to take some time for us to build back the consumer confidence to ensure that when people get on a plane they feel safe.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.