San Antonio International Airport is the City’s Achilles Heel

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Travelers stand outside Terminal A where the work is hung waiting for shuttles. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

San Antonio travelers will have two new nonstop flight options beginning in October.

My years of commuting from San Antonio to Philadelphia to visit my declining parents came to an end last week with the death of my mother at age 88, so enfeebled by Alzheimer’s that she never knew my 90-year-old father died last year, or recognized any of her five sons and daughters when one of us visited.

I prepared to book flights back for services last week, only to discover the U.S. Air/American Airlines nonstop flight from San Antonio to Philadelphia had been discontinued. My most recent visits to Philadelphia came in conjunction with trips to New York or Washington, so I am guessing the nonstop flight was quietly canceled when the merger was completed in 2015.

In the end, family members agreed to hold a memorial service later in San Antonio. Yet the city’s struggle to add and maintain nonstop air service to other major U.S. cities, and to protect its various nonstop flights to Mexico’s leading cities, is a growing concern. Of late, it’s been discussed more in the media than by the City’s elected leaders, but it’s a real problem that’s front-of-mind for some of our most civic-minded business leaders.

Three former San Antonio mayors recently appeared together on stage at the Pearl Stable to discuss the city’s historic and contemporary relationship with Mexico at a luncheon sponsored by the Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos (AEM) and the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG).

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and former San Antonio Mayor (1991-1995) gives his remarks regarding San Antonio's history with Guadalajara and Monterrey.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

(center) Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a former San Antonio Mayor (1991-1995), gives his remarks regarding San Antonio’s history with Guadalajara and Monterrey along with former Mayor Phil Hardberger (left) and former Mayor Henry Cisneros.

Trade has remained remarkably robust between Texas and Mexico, but the city’s unique relationship with Mexico grew distant amid the drug violence south of the border and the obsession with border security among statewide officeholders. Now San Antonio and Mexico appear to be entering a new era of closer ties. That could culminate in the visit here by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto or his elected successor for San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebrations in 2018. He would be the first sitting Mexican president to visit San Antonio since President Carlos Salinas de Gortari came here in 1992 to initial the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Yet there was no disagreement from former Mayor Phil Hardberger (2005-09) or former mayor and now Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff (1991-1995) when former Mayor Henry Cisneros (1981-89) cited the city’s 21% decline in passenger traffic to Mexico as a disturbing trend. You can read more about it in this Oct. 14 article posted by Texas Public Radio.

Earlier this year, Southwest Airlines ended nonstop service between San Antonio and Mexico City. Other flights offered or promised to be offered by two of Mexico’s regional, low-cost airlines, Interjet and Transportes Aéreos Regionales (TAR) appear iffy. I searched for flights on Interjet’s nonstop flight between San Antonio and Toluca without any luck on Saturday, and more than one year has gone by since TAR’s nonstop service between San Antonio and Querétaro was reported in the Mexican press. It has yet to happen.

Cisneros lamented the failure of San Antonio and Austin to build a single regional airport in the 1990s when the idea was fervently promoted, most notably by former U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert “McD” McDermott, the longtime leader of insurance giant USAA, who died in 2006.

“I had hoped that we would be talking seriously about a regional airport, but we missed that opportunity when (Austin) built Bergstrom,” Cisneros said. Although a regional airport now seems unlikely, he added that “we need to be talking about the air routes question, because … our airport is one of our Achilles heels for our future.”

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport now has dozens more nonstop flights than San Antonio, including international flights to London, Toronto, and Cancún. Austin matches our other service to Mexico. Cisneros told the Pearl Stable audience that there is even talk of a nonstop flight from Austin to China.

Southwest Airlines’ nonstop flight between San Antonio and Cancún didn’t even last one year, echoing a failed attempt six years ago by Delta to promote such service between San Antonio and the Yucatán.

The City’s map of nonstop flights still shows routes to places like Philadelphia and Cancún.

A second problem besetting city planners is that, on average, flights from Austin to other domestic destinations are 11% less expensive, which is why a growing stream of price-smart San Antonians are driving to Austin to catch flights. Multiply 11% times total airfare cost for a family of four living on a budget and you are talking real money.

That trend only deepens the gap between the two cities’ air traffic trends. The Cheap Flight’s 2016 Airport Affordability Report ranked Austin-Bergstrom the 33rd most affordable airport in the United States, with average domestic tickets at $295. San Antonio was ranked 56th with average domestic tickets at $332.

Austin was 16th in the 2015 report, still at $293, while San Antonio was 71st at $434. Austin was 54th in the 2014 index, with average ticket price at $399, while San Antonio was 83rd at $470.

The relative pricing issue and its underlying reasons merit closer, independent study. The City of San Antonio would be wise to contract with a third-party entity to assess our airport’s strengths and weaknesses yet again in the wake of slowly growing domestic traffic amid steep declines in travel to Mexico.

You don’t need an expensive consultant, however, to know that while some City leaders continue to boast of San Antonio as the seventh largest city, Austin pays little attention to U.S. census rankings as it continues to build a far more dynamic smart jobs economy and markets its strengths to the outside world. People who live in Austin have more disposable income, and there are more people drawn to the city’s hip, festival-heavy culture.

Farther down I-35, in the city with more pressing poverty and education challenges, residents have less money to travel, and a long-entrenched marketing philosophy that sells family friendly tourism above all else, seems to many outsiders like a less interesting destination.

9 thoughts on “San Antonio International Airport is the City’s Achilles Heel

    • A regional airport between San Marcos and New Braunfels will only work if Austin joins the plan. (Unfortunately, there is no incentive for them to do so, since they have plenty of room and new facilities where they are.) Austin’s Bergstrom airport would still be closer to most of the people who fly. There would be no incentive for airlines to move further away, so they would stay at Bergstrom and the new airport would die and be money down the drain. One of the few advantages that the San Antonio airport has right now is that it is so close and convenient to the population in San Antonio. Make San Antonians have to drive half-way to Austin to take a flight, and they would just drive all the way to Bergstrom to get cheaper prices and more choices.

  1. Yes, SA’s poverty and under-education underscore many, if not all, our city’s problems. But what does rampant “growth” do to decrease poverty and bolster public education? In my mind, nothing. Expanding SA’s population just cements SA as a city with high poverty and an uneducated population. Our citizenry, by and large, is incapable of understanding what does and does not belong in their recycling bins!
    The state government does nothing to ameliorate poverty and substandard education. But those Republicans-in-charge sure love them some private school vouchers. And Dan Patrick has safeguarded the public from the unending vicious attacks by transgender people in bathrooms…that is sarcasm, folks, for there are absolutely no instances of a transgender woman doing anything other than no. 1 or no.2 in any public women’s room. Dear Deity (if you exist), please save Texas from itself.

  2. It’s my belief that San Antonio has already lost the airport war with Austin.

    1. Their airport has longer runways which are required for the 787 planes that airlines are using for international flights from smaller population centers (which San Antonio as a metro area is), and our airport has no room or the money to extend our runways to the required length.

    2. San Antonio is more limited than Austin in terms of population to draw from for passengers. Our northern limit is along a line from Kerrville to Boerne to New Braunfels to Sequin, and (including many from New Braunfels and Seguin) will drive to Austin. Our southern limit goes maybe 150 miles, but is mostly the Wild Horse Desert with such big cities as Alice, Del Rio, Eagle Pass. In other words, we are stuck with little population to draw from to increase our passenger traffic. Austin is limited to the south by the same line, but it is unlimited going northward with lots of large and growing cities.

    3. As reported in the article, we may have 2.2 million people in our metro area who are all closer to our airport than Austin’s, but probably 1.2 million of those are so poor that they never or seldom fly. And most of our population growth is among the poor rather than through in-migration for high-salary paying new jobs. We have few large corporate employers that generate regular in/out traffic. If we didn’t have our convention business and our military, our airport traffic would be much lower than it is now.

    Here’s a website to see how far we have fallen behind Austin since 2005 indicating how Austin has all the momentum:

    The best hope for San Antonio is that we can eventually become a Ft. Lauderdale/Hollywood-type airport for the area–not the main airport for the megalopolis, but a secondary one that keeps flights that it can support on major airlines and that specializes in low-cost airline service that people will make the effort to get to if the prices are lower.

  3. The problem is not the airport – which is quick, efficient, and human scale. The problem is that San Antonio is too poor – particularly relative to Austin – to generate the needed demand to support (i) more destinations (ii) more frequency on destinations we have.

    Without demand, you don’t have competition on routes, which drives up prices. And without demand, you operate smaller planes and less seats, which drives up prices. All these trends will get worse as airline consolidation continues (i.e. losing the service to U.S. Airways’ former Philly hub). Without demand, routes disappear (see Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati airports, all of which lost tons of routes after being de-hubbed). At least the routes we have are demand-justified, unlike those.

    Austin is much richer, and within 50 years, will be bigger too. Austin’s airport will always look better than ours. The goal should be to have the best air service we can – not to look better than Austin, which just is never going to happen. Examples like Philly (90 miles from Baltimore and NY), Fort Lauderdale, and Oakland airports all make clear that you can have robust air service even near other airports with greater demand.

    I think people, including Bob, need to stop complaining about the airport, which aside from a few ticks (like traffic patterns at arrivals and food service in terminal B) is reasonably well run and easy to use. If San Antonio continues to grow and build a stronger economy, demand will take care of itself (particularly if I-35 gets choked off at 3 lanes, making it harder to get to Austin, which seems to be the regional vision right now). A regional airport is never going to happen – that ship has sailed, and Austin has a great, truly international airport with tons of room to expand in the center of the city. The focus should be on building our economy, workforce, and education – the airport will then take care of itself.

  4. An alternative way of addressing this issue is to look for ways to promote better connections between San Antonio and AUS where more direct flights are already being made available. If the mindset in San Antonio can change from feeling like we lose somehow when Austin gets another direct flight to one where we can actually see this as a benefit to the wider region, there is a whole different way of looking at things. For example, the fact that there is a direct flight from Austin to London should really be seen as something completely beneficial to us here in San Antonio.

    While it might be ideal to have a regional airport in San Marcos, this doesn’t seem like a viable alternative at this point. While it probably makes sense to continue the efforts to bring more direct flights to SAT on certain routes (e.g., Boston), it also makes sense to acknowledge that some routes are never going to happen and for these routes it may make sense to start thinking of AUS as our regional airport.

    What I believe we should be looking at is promoting connections between San Antonio and AUS. In the short term, a free or subsidized shuttle between San Antonio and AUS would be a good place to start. A rail connection would be great but won’t happen for years. Actually promoting the idea of using AUS to get to San Antonio is something that also should be looked at now. The City will be losing revenue if more traffic shifts to AUS but there are choices to be made and a deliberate marketing effort to make people aware of the option to use AUS to get to San Antonio could help get people to start thinking of this as a single region instead of two entirety separate ones.

    • I’ve driven to Austin to take that British Airways non-stop to London. High-speed rail, as is being proposed, between the cities would be very helpful. But, Austin needs to also connect the airport to downtown via some sort of light rail… it’s amazing to me and surprising to visitors that Austin doesn’t have light rail.

  5. What if San Antonio were to build a new, non-land locked airport on the south side of the city? A new airport could potentially bring jobs in construction, and as hotels, restaurants and shopping destinations begin to pop up near this new airport, service industry jobs as well. As a city, maybe we should stop looking to the Northside for growth, and cast our eyes South.

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