Passengers wait to board an aircraft. Photo by Scott Ball.
Passengers wait to board an aircraft. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Editor’s Note: The San Antonio International Airport (SAT) needs to step up its game – or so reads the subtext of a recent memo sent by City Manager Sheryl Sculley to SAT leadership. 

Sculley has temporarily assigned Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras to lead the Aviation Department, “including day to day management and oversight of San Antonio International and Stinson Municipal airports.”

SAT Director Frank Miller will now report directly to Contreras.

Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras
Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras

“In this role, Carlos will immediately address a variety of projects including: expanded Air Service (particularly increasing the number of nonstop flights), customer service, and oversight of major capital projects for the two airports, including the Customs renovation and the consolidated rental car facility (CONRAC) project, and the related customer service issues,” Sculley stated in the memo.

Though it has made substantial gains since 2008, SAT has fallen behind its competitors in terms of revenue and passenger traffic. Its annual report, released last year, revealed a revenue decrease of 11% and little increase in customers.

“It’s putting additional resources towards a high priority item for the city,” said Jeff Coyle, director of the City’s Government and Public Affairs Office. Council members and the community “particularly the business community” have recently emphasized the need for optimizing customer service and adding more nonstop flights.

Contreras has been overseeing the airport, Convention Facilities, Economic Development and Coyle’s department since Sculley announced a routine leadership shuffle more than a month ago, he said. “What has changed is that he’s physically out at the airport and will serve as lead for now, (providing) hands-on attention by Carlos.”

Oversight of Contreras’ other departments has been absorbed by other assistant city managers and Sculley’s office, save for Convention.

“Carlos has been the lead of very big projects,” Coyle said, citing Hemisfair Park, Alamo Plaza master plan, and the Frost Bank-Weston Urban real estate deal.

Catherine Tkachyk, a senior analyst with the City’s Office of Innovation, also is on special assignment at the SAT working on air service development. Read her editorial below about SAT and the City are striving to improve service and collect public input through a new working group.

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San Antonio International Airport (SAT) reached an important milestone last year with 8.4 million passengers, the first time we’ve served that many passengers since 2008. In 2015, SAT added new nonstop service to Los Angeles, Miami and New Orleans. Recently, Allegiant Air announced they will be joining the San Antonio market in November with nonstop service to Fort Lauderdale, Orlando and Las Vegas. The airport is ranked among the nation’s largest gateways to Mexico. Additionally, the City continues to invest in infrastructure and customer service improvements like the new parking garage and consolidated rental car facility that broke ground on July 28. These are all great successes for the airport, and show the City’s commitment to our airport.

City officials and San Antonio International Airport employees officially break ground by shoveling dirt. Photo by Scott Ball.
City officials and San Antonio International Airport employees officially break ground the new parking garage and consolidated rental car facility. Photo by Scott Ball.

San Antonio is a great place to live, visit and do business. And our airport is critical to the area’s economic strength and quality-of-life. Indeed, with nonstop service to 37 destinations and an estimated $5.1 billion in regional economic impact, San Antonio’s airport is critical to the future growth of the region. However, even with the recent increases to the number of passengers and flight options, we know that SAT’s current nonstop access does not meet the needs of our city on the rise.

Developing and increasing San Antonio’s air service options is a priority for the City of San Antonio. Over the last few months, the Aviation Department, the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce and the Air Service Development Task Force, headed by Arthur Coulombe, general manager for the JW Marriott, have established a new model for recruiting new direct, nonstop flights to SAT. This new model stresses working in partnership with our business community to provide data to develop a business case for additional flights that we can present to airlines. SAT has a robust incentive program for new airlines and flights, that we will continue to use, but we know airports across the country use the same type of programs. Therefore, to really separate San Antonio from all other airports, working with the entire community to build a business case is essential for attracting new flights.

A map of nonstop flights offered by San Antonio International Airport (SAT) as of August 2015.
A map of nonstop flights offered by San Antonio International Airport (SAT) as of August 2015.

Already the Air Service Development Task Force has identified several target markets on which to focus our efforts. A nonstop flight between San Antonio and Boston tops the list. You may have already seen the beginning of our efforts to collect the travel and customer insight data through a survey by the San Antonio Chamber. The San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce also has been asked to help with our efforts to conduct a survey for its large membership of more than 1,200 members, many of whom are small companies that travel extensively. Collecting data is important as it helps us to identify a latent demand for a flight between San Antonio and Boston. We use that information to show airlines how adding service will be profitable for them in San Antonio.

Along with our work on the San Antonio to Boston flight, we have identified Kansas City, Portland, and the San Francisco Bay area (San Jose and Oakland) as target markets. Reagan Airport in Washington D.C. and LaGuardia in New York City are also priorities. However, both airports have perimeter rules that were enacted by Congress and the New York Port Authority limiting direct flights to airports within 1,250 and 1,500 miles respectively. We are outside of both perimeters and pursuing changes to federal law and the Port Authority rules to create opportunities for San Antonio.

As you can imagine adding nonstop service to an airport is a competitive business. The more people that fly in and out of San Antonio the easier it is for us to compete. Airlines must see demonstrable demand between markets before investing additional service. Based on a 2013 report, 15% of all domestic travel in the San Antonio market drives to another airport to fly with the majority flying out of Austin. The more people that chose to fly out of another airport instead of San Antonio, the harder it is to make a case for additional flights in San Antonio. That is why, in addition to our direct work with the airlines on new flights, we also need to focus on retaining local passengers from leaving San Antonio. We are currently designing programs to help improve your experience at the airport. For example, as we build the new public parking and rental facility we will be introducing a frequent parker program for regular travelers. Look for more details of that program in the coming weeks.

The City will continue to aggressively pursue all options for increasing air service in partnership with our business community and airlines. For a full list of nonstops available from SAT, please visit the airport’s website at www.sanantonio-airport.com.

I’m excited to be part of the team at the airport. We look forward to improving the air service for San Antonio. But we need your help. I ask that you continue to show your support for San Antonio and its development by choosing to fly through the San Antonio International Airport. I’d also challenge you to join this conversation about where San Antonio should go next. Do you agree with the target markets we’ve identified? Or do you have another recommendation? Do you have thoughts on how the airport can make it easier for you to choose San Antonio for your flights? Is Boston a priority destination for you or your company? If so, we would like to include you as part of our working group, send me an email at AirService@sanantonio.gov to be connected. Let us hear from you. Where do you want SAT to take you?

 *Featured/top image: Passengers wait to board an aircraft at San Antonio International Aiport.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Catherine Tkachyk

Catherine Tkachyk is a senior analyst with the City of San Antonio’s Office of Innovation, currently on special assignment at the San Antonio International Airport working on Air Service development....