San Antonio International Airport: Good and Getting Better

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City Manager Sheryl Sculley Ames handsome with Aviation Director Russ Handy following 30 straight record months for the San Antonio International Airport.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

City Manager Sheryl Sculley (center) shakes hands with Aviation Director Russ Handy in celebration of 30 record months at San Antonio International Airport.

The San Antonio International Airport doesn’t get any respect. It’s often the first urban defect cited by locals making unfavorable comparisons with Austin and other regional cities.

The British Airways nonstop from Austin to London is the one flight that most distinguishes our neighbor’s air service, but travelers from San Antonio say they also find less expensive options by flying out of Austin to various domestic destinations.

The comparisons matter, and the City’s aviation managers need to be given the tools and incentives necessary to convince airlines to offer more competitive pricing here. But the criticism also obscures an important point: San Antonio’s airport and the services it offers are good and getting better.

Courtesy / San Antonio Aviation Department

A map shows all the current North American destination cities with nonstop flights from San Antonio, along with a 54th destination, Portland, Oregon, that’s expected in June.

Last week’s announcement that San Antonio air traffic surpassed 10 million passengers in 2018, with more airlines operating here and more nonstop flights available to different destinations than at any time in the last 14 years, represents one of the many accomplishments realized in City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s 13 years of service.

It’s worth noting because many city residents and airport users are probably unaware that the City’s Aviation Department, which manages the airport, is just one of many departments reporting to Sculley and her team of deputies and assistants. Its visible improvements make for one more accomplishment she can claim as she nears retirement.

When Sculley arrived here in 2005, the City’s underperforming Aviation Department was just one of many challenges she inherited. Since then, passenger traffic has grown by more than 35 percent, from 7 million to 10-plus million, and the number of destination cities reached by nonstop flights has grown from 32 to 53.

Marketing a regional airport that operates in the shadows of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Houston Intercontinental Airport is a major challenge. Airlines care only about “butts in seats,” the number of business and leisure travelers who can afford to travel and do so regularly. No amount of promotion or civic pride can change that.

The number of airport users depends, in part, on a city’s population, and San Antonio’s continuing growth and projected growth favor expanded airport service. But an airport’s traffic also depends on a city’s economy, the disposable income of individuals, and the prosperity of businesses. That’s why Austin-Bergstrom serves more than 14 million passengers versus 10 million flying to and from San Antonio International. Our population is greater, but the per capita income is higher in Austin.

The good news in San Antonio is that the current Aviation Department team, led by Director Russell Handy, and his deputy, Thomas Bartlett, is the strongest ever assembled, in my opinion. Together they’ve overseen substantial infrastructure improvements, added considerable amenities and public artworks, attracted new airlines to operate here, and expanded the number of nonstop destinations.

Long-term expansion of the airport to increase capacity to meet demand over the next 50 years is now in the early planning stages. That will be an expensive, multiyear project, one that could necessitate the acquisition of more than 200 acres of adjacent industrial and commercial land to accommodate runway and hangar expansion.

The San Antonio International Airport

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The San Antonio International Airport.

Adding a fast, comfortable, and low-cost transit option connecting the airport to downtown and, perhaps, Northwest San Antonio, would further enhance the visitor experience.

I share many readers’ skepticism of a finding by the ConnectSA leadership that technology has rendered rail service a last-century option. Many readers who support expanded mass transit want the current generation of city leaders to persuade voters to invest in rail. I share that wish, but I don’t believe anyone can sell it to San Antonio voters. Rail isn’t obsolete, in my view, but it is politically impractical and any effort to ad rail that fails at the polls would set back mass transit expansion in general.

A growing economy generating smart job creation is the real key to building a city with better air and ground transportation options. Austin is the state capital and will continue to grow faster, but San Antonio can thrive on its own terms and remain a more affordable and livable city. Steady, sustained growth has been and should continue to be San Antonio’s mantra.

This viewpoint will attract those who disagree and who will continue to measure San Antonio against Austin and cite the gap as reason for expecting more.

I’d point to what was achieved during Sculley’s years as city manager and wish for a continuation of that growth under Erik Walsh, the lone finalist set to follow Sculley in the job.

20 thoughts on “San Antonio International Airport: Good and Getting Better

  1. If the American Airlines Nonstop to JFK thrives will be one indicator that what you say if true if it is suspended then all bets are off .

    • Delta Airlines already successfully flies SAT-JFK non-stop. As you stated American will also add a flight to JFK. Hopefully both will be successful.

  2. Most people don’t realize that airlines control the decisions of routes and changing aircraft size. We have an amazing and very convenient airport that puts you downtown at the Convention Center in less than 10 minutes.

  3. What needs to be taken into account is the fact that many of us live in the path of jets arriving or taking off from the airport. I cannot use my patio because of the extreme noise generated by those enormous jets taking off or arriving at the runway here. I would love to see growth, but not here. A suggestion would be to have jets take off at a 75 degree angle as they do in San Diego, California, and then turn on their engines full blast away from the city itself, thus preventing noise from surrounding communities of that airport.

    • Didn’t you realize you were in a flight path when you bought your house? After all, the airport has been there longer than most of the homes built around it. Or did you only find out about the situation after you bought your home…and your realtor didn’t mention it?

      I’m very cautious about homebuying near an airport since I too once lived under an airport flight path (and UPS air hub — ever listen to 200 planes take off over your house at 4am?). But my situation was very unusual — they completed a new runway AFTER I bought my home!

      • Paige, some of us scopes out our house at all hours and days of the week. What little did qe know was 4/22 was down for rehabbing a little over a year. On top of that, the airport wants to charge me $1000’s for 3 months of data from the meter in my own neighborhood. They claim that we are out of the abatement zone, and their averages don’t pan out. But they make the information unobtainable to disprove them. I have elderly and “not rich” folks living in my neighborhood.

        Now, they want to do “some form of creek location” to the Salado and Mud Creeks. They want to destroy parts of the Salado Greenway that we the constituents aren’t even done paying for.

        I understand growth, but there is also a RESPECTFUL way to do it.

  4. Congrats on breaking the 10 million mark! The article is about 2 million off Austin’s total passenger count for this year. Austin will be just shy of 16 million this year. The gap between Austin and San Antonio continues to grow.

  5. What needs to be taken into account is the fact that many of us live in the path of jets arriving or taking off from the airport. I cannot use my patio because of the extreme noise generated by those enormous jets taking off or arriving at the runway here. I would love to see growth, but not here. A suggestion would be to have jets take off at a 75 degree angle as they do in San Diego, California, and then turn on their engines full blast away from the city itself, thus preventing noise from surrounding communities of that airport. – THEY NEED HIGHER ALTITUDE AT TAKE OFF AND LANDING. ALSO CONCOURSE NEEDS TO BE RE-PAVED

  6. Sorry – we do not agree on this one!

    My birth city had a similar situation with Midway airport. It had limited expansion possibilities – 1 square mile in the middle of a residential area. Money was poured into it and today it serves as a second airport for the busy metro area.

    O’Hare was developed – much larger land space, away from the residential area (at the time) and it allowed Chicago to become one of the major airport host in the country. Had the planners of the time not recognized the needs of the future, Chicago’s growth would have been stunted.

    IMO – SAT has similar limitations and ZERO attraction to international long haul flights. It is time to relocate – and perhaps partner with Austin to build our own version of DFW. The location would be removed from the dense population areas, have access to I35, the much talked about future high speed rail and much more. Most importantly, the economic benefits – attracting new business, international trade, jobs, etc. – would help pay for the new airport and take us through an age of growth in this century.

    I have not shared this publicly before, but shortly after I moved to San Antonio in 2004, I was offered a job as vp of a new startup airline. I suggested San Antonio would be a great city for services and support operations. The backers gave thumbs down (I will not share exactly what was said) – but I declined their offer requiring me to relocate.

    We have a problem – it needs fix’n.

  7. Improvements over the past decade are quite obvious and continue. I believe SAT is a great airport for San Antonio now and the foreseeable future. I don’t agree that we need a larger airport. There is plenty of room to handle needs for at least 25 if not 50 or more years. By that time travel may be radically different.

    I REALLY appreciate how quickly we can get to the airport from nearly every corner of Bexar County. We are not Houston or Dallas where most people budget an hour to get to the big airports just to be greeted with a 15 minute walk from the parking garages.

    • Now I know you meant to actually write that the new part of Terminal A, Concourse C is not even in the picture. 😉

      I mean, any normal person looking at a current aerial picture would assume that it is really is just one expanded terminal with 3 concourses (A,B, and C)… and that of course you can go from any concourse to another once you have cleared security at either end of the terminal. /s

      • GroundedFlyer ….. I meant exactly what I stated. SAT has 2 terminals. Terminal B is the terminal that United and American operate out of. It opened late in 2010. The aerial photo in the article must be from 2008 or earlier as it shows the old/original terminal from the 50s/60s.

  8. I think that they should put a Torchy’s Tacos in the airport. It would do so well and would be better option then the others that are already there.

  9. Given that O’hare replaced Midway in Chicago, DFW replaced Love Field in Dallas, Bush International replaced Hobby in Houston and closer to home that Bergstrom replaced Mueller municipal airport in Austin – all for much the same reasons, the self congratulating and self back patting over accomplishments at our airport seem unwarranted. We need a regional airport SE of town like RC said above. UTSA’s and the Medical Center’s location seemed ridiculous at their inception but now we can see that those responsible were visionaries with great foresight. They saved the taxpayers millions of dollars hy locating them where they’re at now. Anything less than a regional airport should not be congratulated. Being second place the San Antonio-Austin area is not something to be proud of or sought after. Austin has already shown itself to be adverserial, taking an MLS Soccer team franchise right out from under our nose. Ourcicic leaders need to wake up and make up for lost time to make sure that San Antonio becomes the hub that all of South Texas comes to for Airport services, and it cannot acvomplish this without a large Regional Airport of its own with room for growth.

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