Scott Ball / Rivard Report
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.