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Can New Incentives Bring More Non-Stop Flights To San Antonio?

Shelley Kofler
Texas Public Radio
San Antonio wants to offer passengers flying out of its airport more non-stop flights.

San Antonio aviation officials have unveiled a package of financial incentives aimed at luring more non-stop flights to the city-run airport.

The effort follows stinging criticism that airport pricing and flight availability may not be competitive enough to attract top businesses to the area.

In an interview with Texas Public Radio, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce Chairman Henry Cisneros rattled City Hall when he characterized San Antonio air services this way:

“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,” Cisneros said in August. 

City’s aviation officials have since acknowledged that a net 300,000 passengers who used to fly out of San Antonio are now flying out of Austin.  San Antonio has fewer non-stop flights than Austin and surveys show average ticket prices for flights from San Antonio are generally higher than for flights from other Texas airports.

Fees Waived for New Non-Stops and Service

San Antonio Councilman Joe Krier heads the city’s Economic and Human Development Committee where the incentives were unveiled on Tuesday. ( See details of the incentive proposal below)

He says the airport has previously reimbursed airlines for some expenses.  He says the key to the new incentives is that airlines wouldn’t have to pay certain fees up front, and there are additional expenses that could be waived.

“If they bring the routes here, they would normally pay landing fees and other fees that in this case the city is proposing to waive and not collect in order to get additional routes,” Krier said.

The incentives, which need council approval, offer up to $200,000 in marketing services, plus potential reductions in airport landing and rental fees. 

Aviation Consultant Doubts Incentives Will Work

Aviation Consultant Mike Boyd says incentives are important, but he doubts this package will get the desired results.

“Just doing blind incentives like this to bring more non-stop routes- it’s an amateur act,” Boyd said.

“There aren’t a lot of airlines out there.  There are very few markets where an airline can operate a non-stop flight and you can target those.  This shooting into the forest and calling it deer hunting isn’t going to work.”

Boyd is a former airline executive who’s been consulting with cities, airlines, businesses and airports since 1984.  He says that overall San Antonio has “pretty good” air service.  It may not have all the non-stops it wants but he says it has direct flights to every connecting hub.  

What About a Non-Stop to Boston?

Boyd is aware that San Antonio’s top priority is for non-stop service to Boston, a destination for San Antonio’s health care and bio-medical professionals. But he doesn’t think the area can generate enough passengers to make it work.

“You have roughly 110 passengers a day going from San Antonio to Boston. So you’re going to go to an airline and say- I’ll give you $100 thousand dollars for you put a 150-seat airplane in here.  They’d have to get all of the current passengers plus others to make that work and that’s going to be very difficult.  (The airlines) are probably going to look at that and say, no thank you.”

“What has to happen is the responsible people in government have to tell the public that we can’t support non-stops to Boston.  No matter what we do we don’t have enough traffic to make it work.  It’s as simple as that.  Instead of going through this Kabuki Theater of saying we’re going to get more airlines.  That’s just amateur,” Boyd said.

Chamber-City Leaders Talking With Airlines

San Antonio Chamber CEO and President Richard Perez doesn’t think the incentives are “amateur.”

“You have to open the door with something,” Perez said.

He’s surveying area businesses, asking what they could offer that would make expanding at the San Antonio airport more attractive.

“Maybe they could help us with additional marketing dollars.  Maybe they could outright commit to using that airline only, whatever airline that might be.  The commitment could range from a variety of things,” he explained.

Perez and the Councilman Krier know that ultimately San Antonio has to prove to the airlines it can fill the planes to attract new flights. 

While Boyd believes the effort is naïve,  Perez and Councilman Krier are optimistic. Perez says members of a city-chamber task force have had recent discussions with some of the airlines.

Proposed Airline Incentives - 11-3-15 Council Comm Briefing Legislation Details (With Text)

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.