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Growing Pains: Comparing San Antonio Air Ticket Prices With Other Key Cities

Shelley Kofler
Texas Public Radio
A study conducted for Texas Public Radio finds passengers are often paying more for air travel from San Antonio's airport.

San Antonio’s airport director told city council members Wednesday that a net 300,000 passengers who used to fly out of the San Antonio International Airport are now driving to Austin for flights.

It’s another bit of data that adds fuel to concerns that San Antonio’s airport may have lost its competitive edge to Austin. 

As part of our project, Growing Pains, Texas Public Radio continues our report on the San Antonio Airport, with the results of what an analyst found when we asked him to compare its ticket prices with that of other cities. 

Here’s the scenario we took to our expert:  A tech company with several hundred employees who travel a lot wants to relocate.  It’s considering a move to one of five cities:  Phoenix, San Diego, Denver, Austin, or San Antonio. .    

We asked Brad Seitz, president of Topaz International, to look at which of those cities would be the most cost effective for air travel. Seitz audits airfares for corporations. 

We took 10 or 11 cities they might be traveling to,” explained Seitz. “Took a typical business trip- a couple of nights on the road- and took the cheapest fare it would take to go between these cities.”

The destinations for our business travelers included airports in the New York, Washington D.C., and San Francisco Bay areas.  We included Chicago and Seattle, as well as three international destinations:  Mexico City, Beijing and London.

San Antonio Has Highest Average Ticket Prices In Survey

Seitz calculated the average of the fares.  Here’s what he found.

“San Antonio on average was the highest ticket price for these five cities.”

And San Antonio’s average ticket price wasn’t just a little higher.  It was $52 to $106 higher than average ticket prices in the other cities.

Seitz says that could matter to a business.

Companies React To Air Costs And Convenience

“For a healthy size company where they’re spending millions of dollars, even a $20 or $50 difference in an average ticket price can turn out to be a lot over time.”

Seitz says the company would also be looking at how easy it is to reach travel destinations.  San Antonio didn’t offer non-stops at the lowest fares.  A company that wanted non-stops might look at Phoenix and Denver, which are airline hubs that offered some non-stops on some of their cheapest tickets.

“Obviously non-stop is easier and it’s less time for employees on the road and more time for their families. And they may look in terms of those hubs, specifically Phoenix and Denver, where they are less likely to have delays,” said Seitz.

Seitz’s analysis is a snapshot in time, but it underscores other studies that show it often costs more to fly from San Antonio. That may be in part because there are fewer flights.

Based on these flights San Antonio had the highest average ticket price of $724.80; Austin, $618.56; Phoenix, $673.18; San Diego, $623.26; Denver, $666.40. Data represents a flight leaving on 8/19/15 and returning at least two days later. See detailed numbers below.

Data Shows A Drop In San Antonio Flights 

A surveyby the aviation companymasFlight found that between 2010 and 2014 the number of departures from San Antonio by U.S. carriers dropped 4.6 percent while the number of departures from nearby Austin-Bergstrom rose by 21.3 percent.

It all adds fuel to what San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Chairman Henry Cisneros has said: that San Antonio’s air service isn’t competitive.

“Yes, ideally you want to attract new business but right now we’re not even keeping what we have,” said Cisneros, recalling AT&T’s departure from San Antonio for Dallas in 2008, citing a need for better air service. Cisneros doesn’t want a repeat of history.

“Lord knows we want to hang onto the likes of USAA and Valero and other big companies that are hooked into the nation and who are constantly bringing vendors in.  And those people are the ones who are really, really, pained by our airport situation.  It is, I would say, quite serious,” said Cisneros.

Time To Talk About A Regional Airport?  

Cisneros’ recent reference to the airport as an Achilles heel for San Antonio’s economy provoked a search for solutions among concerned city council members Wednesday.

Mayor Ivy Taylor said she’s met with the mayor of Austin to discuss building a regional airport that would serve both growing cities and others in between.  District 9 Councilman Joe Krier also believes a regional airport would provide a good long-term fix.

“In 25 years our current terminals will be old fashioned. In 25 years Austin’s brand new airport will be old fashioned,” said Krier.  “So the time to be thinking about what’s next is right now, because it will take us 25 years to figure out how to do something like that.”

In the near term, however, San Antonio needs to convince airlines to provide more non-stops and routes which in term could lower prices.

City Manager Sheryl Sculley says she’s created a position to do that.

“I have assigned one of our best and brightest budget innovators out at the airport full time to gather research and data, and also help to put together the plans that will enable us to submit and make those presentations to the airlines,” she said.

Airline Incentives

Airport Director Frank Miller says the city already waives some landing and take-off fees for airlines that expand service here.  Cisneros has suggested the city go further promising the airlines a number of paid seats.

“That is to say if they don’t fill them their selves the city would make up the balance and pay for a number of seats in order to ensure the flight is going out full or nearly full.”

Aviation Director Frank Miller said the incentive Cisneros suggested is being used at other airports and should be discussed here.

Miller told council members plans to propose additional incentives to lure airline services next week.

Comparison of Air Ticket Prices by Texas Public Radio

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.