Study: Expanding Current Airport Would Fit Needs of Growing San Antonio

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The San Antonio International Airport

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

The San Antonio International Airport.

A new airport is likely not in San Antonio’s future.

According to engineering and planning firm WSP-USA, which in August was commissioned to do a feasibility study on the San Antonio International Airport, the footprint of the current airport could serve the needs of the city and region for another 50 years.

However, in order to accomplish this, the airport would need to add new runways and other infrastructure by 2023.

In a Tuesday meeting of the Airport Advisory Commission, a WSP consultant briefed commission members on a study that involved a series of public meetings and surveys and forecasted travel demand.

According to forecasts within the study, airport passenger growth will increase 1.6 percent annually for the next 20 years, then 2.3 percent annually through 2068. Already, by 2023, the airport is expected to reach 80 percent capacity.

In September, airport officials said passenger growth is the highest it has been in nearly 16 years. The airport hosted 881,896 passengers in August, 17 percent more than during the same month in 2017, putting it on course to hit or surpass a record 10 million passengers this year.

The San Antonio Airport System launched the strategic development planning process in August to prepare for a growing population and increasing air travel. It is the first such master plan to be developed since 2010.

Currently, the San Antonio airport sits on 2,600 acres and has two terminals, 24 gates, and 11 airlines providing service. To keep up with projected growth patterns, the airport would need to add another 11 gates by 2038, and 63 gates by 2068.

The Airport Advisory Commission, which consists of Council-appointed citizens, and the Airport System Development Committee (ASDC), led by Chairman John Dickson, will hold four additional meetings in the coming week to discuss the findings and make final recommendation to City Council on Oct. 31.

The WSP would determine the costs of expansion during the second phase of the study if City Council approves that direction.

Following Tuesday’s briefing, commission members met in small groups to discuss the study’s conclusions, with one member calling the findings a “relief.”

“It sounds good, to build a new, shiny thing, but it’s not that easy,” said John van Woensel, team project manager for WSP. “Building a new airport is an enormous undertaking, and the process starts with determining if you can fit it here. If it will, then the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] won’t support [a new one].”

The WSP study put the cost of a new airport between $5 billion and $10 billion with a timeline of 15 to 20 years or more to build. Acquiring thousands of acres of land within the city limits and operating the existing airport during construction is a major part of the cost and time. An environmental impact study alone is a three-year project, van Woensel said, and that is if all goes well.

Also, airlines would need to support such a project, van Woensel said, and “in this country, you can’t tell the airlines where to go.”

Van Woensel presented several scenarios to the commission with aerial images and diagrams showing how an expanded airport would accommodate current FAA regulations for airspace and runway spans. The diagrams also suggested ways in which terminals and runways could be added to meet future growth needs. One of those scenarios showed altering current access to the airport and acquiring additional land.

But an improved airport that meets future needs only would work if certain conditions were met, van Woensel said. In addition to obtaining approvals from the FAA and the federal government, the City would need to acquire some land adjacent to the existing airport. The WSP study also recommended rerouting a nearby creek, closing a secondary runway, and relocating some tenant activities.

Aviation Director Russ Handy said there are pros and cons to building a new airport and maintaining and improving the existing one.

“We have done a tremendous amount of community outreach and had a lot of conversations, and there are underlying thoughts that need to be considered,” he said.

“I will tell you the top one or two things people like about this airport is the convenience and proximity to their business and home. Even if we got into an either/or conversation, that is very strong public opinion.”

Handy also reminded the commission that although strong data and input already supported the findings, opinions expressed in the upcoming public meetings might alter the recommendation that goes before Council.

18 thoughts on “Study: Expanding Current Airport Would Fit Needs of Growing San Antonio

  1. So will this allow for the development of international flights? In terms of expanding, the only directions is north and east. If eastward extending, would I be correct in guessing that a short distance of Hwy 281 will have to be tunneld?

  2. This seems like a temporarily solution only and at some point if we want to grow our airport capacity we’re going to have find a new location. It’s not an uncommon problem and many cities have built new airports that now expand as needed along with the city they support.

  3. I believe that the “current airport could serve the needs of the city and region for another 50 years” if the goal is to have our airport be the best second rate airport in the region. Ask anyone who is taking a flight out of the area and most of them will tell you they’re flying out of Austin because they have a more direct connection or the flight is cheaper. San Antonio needs an airport that can serve south texas, especially Corpus Christi which with all their new infrastructure construction is set to become a major port. Planning the limited expansion of the current airport puts a lid on San Antonio’s future growth. It is shortsighted and seriously underestimates this city’s potential. Have our leaders forgotten how San Antonio lost AT&T because there weren’t enough direct flights?

    • I don’t believe AT&T’s excuse that it left SA because of our airport, just as our airport did not keep AT&T from moving to SA from St. Louis, MO in the first place. The move entirely coincides with the change in CEO from Ed Whitacre, who wanted the HQ to be here (and still lives here), to Randall Stephenson, who wanted the HQ in Dallas.

    • I agree with the other poster. AT&T did not move because of the airport. I also fly at least once a week and would not even consider driving to Austin to fly. Those are the people willing to give up two hours to save $10.00. Why put an emphasis on cut rate customer that flies maybe twice a year at most?

  4. Interesting report. So the current airport location will serve the future needs of the city. I hope we will get to see the final report. I am an aeronautical engineer and from my initial analysis with the current technology and aircraft on the market, B787-10 and A350-XWB, long haul international flights are possible without lengthening the runway. I hope the market demand in the City grows further for business travellers and makes it attractive to warrant sufficient demand for a service to Europe. Good Luck SAT!!!

    • Sam, I’m revealing my age when I say that I remember when Braniff flew a 747 to San Antonio!

      The biggest mystery to me is why the airlines that serve San Antonio fly small, single aisle aircraft such as the MD-90. If the airlines flew the larger aircraft to San Antonio then it seems to me that it would reduce congestion in San Antonio airspace – and reduce the need for an additional runway and all those extra gates.

  5. This is great news. A shiny new airport might appeal to politicians but an expanded airport in the existing, fabulous location certainly appeals to travelers. We will get more non-stop flights when the demand grows and that demand will grow when we produce the educated workforce to build the businesses and institutions to which people travel.

  6. There is no other location that would result in growth in passengers. Moving east, west, or south there are no cities that would be closer that would provide enough passengers to offset the lost passengers in the north would would start finding the Austin airport then closer or more convenient. (The Corpus Christi airport only has fewer than a million passengers–around 400,000 enplanements–and most of those people will continue to use their airport due to its convenience. Victoria residents already drive mostly to Houston or Austin airports, and the city doesn’t have enough residents to offset the passengers lost to the north of San Antonio if we moved to the east. Laredo, Eagle Pass, Uvalde, and Del Rio passengers are already coming to our airport, so moving to the west wouldn’t help.) Moving to the north would lessen the convenience factor that keeps people in San Antonio and cities to the south and west already using our airport vs. their choosing the Austin airport.

    The only solution San Antonio has is based on leaving our airport where it is, growing the business climate of the city to increase the population that can afford to fly, and maintaining the ultra low cost service that has been the cause for most of the passenger count increase for this last year (from our population that usually cannot afford to travel by air). Maybe in 50 years or so Austin will see an advantage to having a joint airport somewhere north of Seguin along TX 130 that would serve both cities.

    To be honest though, Austin, by having a far bigger percentage of its population with higher salaries, by all of its growth mostly being in high paying jobs, and by having grown to the point of being almost the same size as the San Antonio metro area has already won the airport war with its 14 million passenger count last year vs. our hoped-for 10 million passenger count this year.

  7. If the city can fit all of the additional runway and gates into the existing location, then I say stick with what works. The reason that Austin has surpassed San Antonio in volume of flights and destinations has little to do with airport location. My understanding is it has more to do with the expanding population of highly educated and highly paid individuals in Austin. These persons are more likely to take flights and they attract increased airline services. Austin has also increased its desirability as a destination for travelers looking for a vacation destination. If San Antonio focuses on continuing to increase its viability as a vacation destination and continues to increase the quality of its economy and workforce, then the rest should follow.

  8. Comparing our situation to Austin’s is like apples and oranges. Austin’s old airport was completely undersized and landlocked. It really had no choice but to move, and coincidentally the U. S. government decided to close Bergstrom AFB, creating an opportunity for the city to take it over. The success of Austin’s airport mirrors the success of Austin as a community; i.e. the airport is not a success just because it’s shiny and new. We are fortunate to have an airport that can still expand where it is. Our super-convenient location is a huge advantage and we should not give that up if we don’t have to.

  9. Are you out of your minds? Have you been to other airports? San Antonio’s does not compare well. Also, whoever approved the parking garage made it clear that they are here to support the tourist industry and not the local business traveler. Has anyone else parked in long term parking and thought it was very poorly designed? You have to take two elevators and an escalator to get from your car to the gates! While the rental cars are a simple walk. Why didn’t we move the rental cars off site and take care of the business traveler like say, Boston, BWI, DFW or several other APs? Just terrible…

    • You must not travel very often. Renting a car in San Antonio now is among the most convenient to do in the country. You are worried about two escalators? What about a 15 minutes bus ride? That’s what happens when you don’t have room for a CONRAC in a good spot. See Phoenix as an example of a PITA.

  10. Texas two steps always behind, that is the heart of the city’s strategic plan for the area’s air transport infrastructure. Or put another way, always shortsighted, at least from a historical perspective.

    1) The current location is of course the best place to expand, but the city never bought enough buffer land decades ago to provide for expansion. Every year that passes, the cost just keeps going up.

    2) When we do decide it is time to replace an old terminal, we decide to connect it to the existing and yet give it another name, maybe to make it seem our airport is larger. However, we forget to provide access after security to all the gates. Better if we had just called it one terminal and had concourses A, B, and C. You could have had a west TSA checkpoint and an east TSA checkpoint. No, let’s make it complicated by keeping them separate.

    3) The road infrastructure leading into the terminal area is about two lanes less than ideal; but when we were replacing the current short term parking and developing the CONRAC, we couldn’t add lanes.

    4) Speaking of the CONRAC, if and when Terminals C and D are to be added, won’t the current location be a bit far? Why not build it in a bit more central location, which would still be convenient and serve the future expanded gates as well? Then the current location could have more space to also serve local travelers who are going out of town for a business or leisure trip.

    5) At lease the cell phone lot is now in a good location. Also, it was a great idea to move taxis out of the inner lanes of the arrival area. Plus great idea to add labels/signage to columns on arrival area for regular pickup, ride share pickup, etc.

    6) While we would all like more nonstops or international, don’t count on it unless we pay airlines or we increase the overall population of jobs in the city with higher salaries. In other words, make the city a haven for higher paying jobs and the the demand will grow; serving that need is what drives airlines to add direct and nonstop flights.

    7) If another airport is still what is wanted, go find a location and buy up around 10,000+ acres sooner rather than later and zone it now.

  11. The current airport layout design, beginning with the construction of what is now called Terminal A, began with the 1975 Airport Master Plan. That plan placed Terminal A exactly where it is now and it called for the original terminal to be demolished and replaced with a Terminal B to be paced exactly where Terminal B is now. The current Terminal B was constructed so that it could be expanded by two additional gates. The current Terminal A can also have three additional gates added to it’s concourse on the south. These things are all known and in the public record. In addition, during the construction project for building Terminal B, a long elevated roadway was constructed, exactly as is required to continue with the 1975 master plan, which further calls for the construction of a Terminal C and a Terminal D, which would be the largest of all of them. This could bring the existing gate number to around 65 or 70. All of this can be done without ever changing the present roadway. The 1975 Airport Master Plan also called for the removal of the smaller general aviation runway that parallels the runway perpendicular to US 281, and replace it with similar parallel runway to that current runway. The 1975 Masterplan also called for the minor realignment of Jones-Maltsburger Rd. In other words, much of the infrastructure is already completed. All of the planning was done decades ago. What is infuriating is that the City regards us as so stupid, and we in fact are so stupid as to not know these things. We also rely upon news outlets such as the Rivard Report do not investigate the history. If I can remember these things just from reading the 1975 Masterplan, when I was in middle school, I’m sure you “journalists” can come up with the details. I hope everyone can see, we do not need expensive studies and public discussion. It’s why we pay city government, to provide for the common good, which includes airports. By the time a new airport will be needed, in more than 50 years, most of us will be dead and different solutions will present themselves. Just stop treating us like stupid sheep, stop looking for ways to spend money, build the next two terminals, as they are needed.

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