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Growing Pains: Can San Antonio's Airport Compete?

Shelley Kofler
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio International serves eight million passengers annually.

The U.S. Census Bureau recently named San Antonio as one of the 10 fastest growing, big cities in the country.  Area planners estimate one million more people will move to Bexar County in the next 25 years.

Texas Public Radio will be taking a deeper look at the opportunities and hurdles that come with that growth in our project, “Growing Pains.”

We begin by looking at whether San Antonio International Airport is competitive enough to help attract the cutting-edge businesses area leaders would like to attract.

Each year more than eight million passengers fly in and out of San Antonio’s city-run airport. The former military base built in 1941 became a commercial airport in 1953. It’s an easy turn off two major highways, in the midst of a metro-area that has grown up around it.

Passengers like architect Gary Belzung like the hassle-free location.

“I’m the same distance from Austin as from San Antonio.  I come here.  It’s easy to get to the airport. Austin is a bear to get to,” said Belzung, who’s willing to pay a little more to fly from San Antonio because it’s convenient.

But increasingly, passengers like Ashley Dumulong feel shortchanged.

“If we are going to continue to be a city on the rise, I think the business community and the community at large really needs to take a long hard look at our airport.”

Higher Average Ticket Prices

Dumulong works for a financial services company and flies for both business and pleasure.  Recently, she and three family members took a trip to Paris.  She wanted to depart from San Antonio where she lives, but ended up flying out of Austin-Bergstrom.  She says the 90-minute drive saved her family $2,400 dollars. 

“It was $600 per ticket cheaper to fly from Austin to Paris than to fly from San Antonio to Paris. I knew the other market places were more competitive, but I didn’t know they were that competitive.”

Credit Shelley Kofler / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Eleven airlines serve San Antonio International.

Paris isn’t the only destination that is more expensive from San Antonio. In its annual Airport Affordability Report, the online ticket company, Cheapflights.com, ranked San Antonio in the bottom third for affordable pricing.  The average ticket price of $434 placed San Antonio 71 out of 101 airports- typically more expensive than both Dallas airports, both Houston airports and Austin.

Non-Stop Flights and Connections

And it’s not just the price of tickets that sometimes irks business travelers.  It’s the limited non-stop flights and connections to certain cities. 

For example, Dumulong says that when she has business in Washington D.C., she often flies into Baltimore, because there’s no non-stop service from San Antonio to Reagan National, the airport closest to Capitol Hill.

“You can only get so close to Washington D.C.  Typically, you have to fly to BWI (Baltimore), then drive in.  That’s a $65 to $70 cab fare each way.  Or you have to fly into Reagan.  And if you fly into Reagan you have to change planes.”

“It just seems we as a community are being passed over.” said Dumulong.    

Henry Cisneros agrees. He’s a former mayor, business CEO and chairman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

Air Service- San Antonio’s Achilles Heel?

Credit Shelley Kofler / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Chamber of Commerce Chairman Henry Cisneros calls San Antonio's air service an "Achilles heel" that could result in stagnant area growth.

“If you were assessing San Antonio’s vulnerabilities- what are the places that could be our Achilles heel and stagnate us- our airport and air service would be one of those,” said Cisneros. 

Cisneros remembers AT&T moving its headquarters from San Antonio to Dallas in 2008, citing better air service as a reason.  In 2012, Austin beat out San Antonio for a direct route to Washington DC’s Reagan National. 

Cisneros says 30 years ago he dreamed of improving air travel by building a regional airport that would serve San Antonio, Austin, and everyone in-between. Now:

“My ambitions have declined from thinking of a regional airport or even thinking or a new San Antonio airport, all the way down to begging for routes for our airport, which is hard because we have to prove to the airlines they will fill the seats to these airports.”  

Credit Shelley Kofler / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio's Airport Director Frank Miller says attracting more non-stop flights is a top priority.

“We do have good service here.  We do have reasonable fares,” said Airport Director Frank Miller in response to the concerns.

Miller knows there’s frustration and says attracting more non-stops to key business destinations like Boston, Washington and Kansas City a top priority. 

Right now you can fly non-stop from San Antonio to 37 destinations, and San Antonio’s airport is considered the tenth largest gateway to Mexico.

San Antonio vs. Austin

Austin, however, has more non-stop destinations - 50.  Austin serves more passengers, has more departures and is serviced by 15 airlines compared to San Antonio’s 11.

Miller says the difference, in part, is that San Antonio attracts more leisure travelers while nearby Austin sells more tickets to business travelers. Miller says business travelers reliably fill the seats.

“The airlines want to know that if I begin this service out of San Antonio, the business community or the community in general will support that service,” Miller said.

Data provided by Austin and San Antonio airports.

While the clientele at the San Antonio and Austin airports are somewhat different, Cisneros believes the future of the two - 75 miles apart- will be linked as the region grows.  And he doesn’t like what he sees.

“The one in Austin is going to be the one that does the international flights and establishes Austin, not just as the capitol of Texas but the center of this region.  Then we’re going to have the San Antonio airport which is going to be the Hobby or the Love… the baby brother.”

By “baby brother” Cisneros means that San Antonio could become to Austin what Oakland is to San Francisco, what Burbank is to Los Angeles. 

“I’m saying if we don’t do something about this it is fact.  It is inevitability,” Cisneros said.

Texas Public Radio continues our report on San Antonio air service tomorrow when we look at ideas for making the airport more competitive.  We also talk to a consultant who’s analyzed how San Antonio’s air service stacks up against some other cities trying to attract top businesses.

Shelley Kofler is Texas Public Radio’s news director. She joined the San Antonio station in December 2014 and leads a growing staff that produces two weekly programs; a daily talk show, news features, reports and online content. Prior to TPR, Shelley served as the managing editor and news director at KERA in Dallas-Fort Worth, and the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.