Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
Ana Del Rio is an accountant for Apple living and working in Austin. On Friday, she was anticipating an annual visit with friends, on the eve of El Grito de la Independencia, as she waited at the San Antonio International Airport to board the inaugural flight of Volaris Airlines’ daily, nonstop service to Mexico City.
Mexican economy airline Volaris announced in May that it would offer new daily nonstop air service from San Antonio to Mexico City starting Sept. 15. The flight, representing another goal met in the City of San Antonio’s five-year strategic plan to increase international air service, was celebrated at Gate A7 with music and food from La Gloria.
Del Rio told the Rivard Report she chose the flight not for its prominence, but because the flight time and price met her needs better than any options out of the Austin-Bergstom International Airport. Round-trip tickets for Volaris' San Antonio-Mexico City flight start at $205.
“We do get some of that,” said Russ Handy, director of aviation for the City of San Antonio, describing the so-called “leakage” rate of about 6% of domestic travel that chooses to fly out of Austin versus San Antonio. “But it’s a little less coming south.”
Yet San Antonio has managed to corner the market on Mexico, with more than double the amount of flight capacity to Mexico than Austin currently offers, and with 1,000 daily seats to Mexico, 600 of those into Mexico City.
While San Antonio lost one of its direct-to-Mexico flights in early 2016 when Southwest Airlines relocated its service to Houston Hobby, other airlines are quickly filling the gap.
Mexican carrier Interjet already offers two daily flights on weekdays from San Antonio to Mexico City. Aeromexico offers one daily flight. San Antonio International Airport also offers direct flights to Monterrey and, on a seasonal basis, Cancun.
“If you talk to the airline executives, they say they feel very good about the Mexico City-San Antonio market and their biggest limiting factor is being able to get slots in and out of the Mexico City airport – it’s just very, very busy,” Handy said. “So that’s what they are typically battling.”
Volaris’ Ancillary Revenue Manager Juliana Ramirez arrived in San Antonio aboard the inaugural flight along with many passengers traveling to visit friends and family here.
“This is the Hispanic market connecting between Mexico and the U.S., but also we are looking at a lot of leisure and business travelers as well,” Ramirez said.
Also booked on the Friday flight was Marisa Ramirez, a social media star known for her comedy show, "Lost en el Gabacho.” She has lived in San Antonio for five years, has family members in Mexico City, and was traveling with her daughter Luciana, 13.
"I'm traveling to the city for my shows and coming back on Sunday," Marisa Ramirez said, speaking in Spanish. "I commend Volaris for the flexible hours and the great price."
Texas represents a key market for Volaris, due to its sizable Hispanic population, and Juliana Ramirez looks for all seats on Volaris flights bound for Mexico and back to be full.
“We do this by our prices. Our prices, one way, will start at $99, so the round-trip fare will be around $200,” she said. “[Low prices] are Volaris’ business model. We have lower operating costs so we can lower our fares, stimulate the demand, fill airplanes, then increase capacity.”
Founded in 2006, Volaris currently offers more destinations from Mexico into the U.S. than any other Mexican airline. Last year, Juliana Ramirez said, the airline conducted 1,140 operations within Texas, and transported 145,000 passengers. Volaris also offers flights from San Antonio to Guadalajara, Mexico.
“We are confident that offering accessible air travel between Texas and Mexico will promote social, economic and tourist exchange by providing convenient travel options to our ‘visit friends and relatives’ audience, business travelers and leisure travelers,” Juliana Ramirez said in her remarks at a ceremony Friday in Terminal B. “This newest route into San Antonio is an example of Volaris’ commitment to continued growth and expansion in order to bring friends and families together.”
San Antonio residents Paula and Alejandro Madrigal bought their tickets to Mexico City for a weekend getaway to celebrate their 18th wedding anniversary. Both have family in Mexico City.
"We're hoping to catch some events for Mexico's Independence celebration," Paula Madrigal told the Rivard Report, speaking in Spanish. "This is great accessibility, it provides more options, and at a cheaper price. I hope we can go more often now that they have this flight."
Patricia Herrera, the executive director for Mexico's tourism board in the Southern U.S. and Colorado, was present at the event Friday and said that providing more flights to other destinations in Mexico is pivotal to strengthen the tourism industry.
"Mexico City is extraordinarily beautiful and it's a city that offers everything: food, museums, and a very rich history," Herrera said. "It's the city with the most museums after London. It's also a very safe city that boasts tourism in business and even in the medical field. Going to a dentist, for example, is cheaper in Mexico."
The Volaris San Antonio-Mexico City flight also offers more connections for all travelers, Herrera added, since Mexico's City's airport offers connections to every major destination around the world.
Here in San Antonio, the air service task force established in May continues to develop new direct flights, both domestic and international, including cities like Boston, San Francisco, and Washington National.
“Frankly I’m excited about the long-term future of Latin America in general,” Handy said. “That’s very much a work in progress for the City, to develop that trade relationship, and we’re going to be right there to support that from an airport perspective.”
More flights also translate to better prices for consumers. “By definition, that always forces competition in the marketplace in both rates and place, so I think we will see that pressure,” Handy said.
“And there’s definitely more coming,” he added.
In October, Frontier Airlines will add nonstop flights from San Antonio to San Diego, New Orleans, Phoenix, Washington (Dulles) and Ontario, Calif. Another three cities will be added in the spring of 2018 – Cincinnati, San Jose, and Orlando.
The new Volaris nonstop flight departs Mexico City at noon daily, and arrives in San Antonio at 2:04 p.m. The flight departs San Antonio at 3:20 p.m. and arrives in Mexico City at 5:16 p.m.