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Local Leaders Discussing Privatizing San Antonio Airport Operations

Shelley Kofler
Texas Public Radio
More than 8.5 million travelers fly in and out of San Antonio International Airport each year.

San Antonio civic leaders have met with consultants and others about private management of the city owned airport.

Senior staff at City Hall say discussions about hiring a private company to manage San Antonio International began late last summer when a consultant and an airport management company met with city and county representatives, including City Manager Sheryl Sculley.

“We have been approached about privatizing the airport by a group that has done this in Puerto Rico.  We are studying that right now, I would say, in a very preliminary way,” Sculley said.

Aerostar Airport Holdings is the company that operates the publicly-owned airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  Texas Public Radio was unable to reach Aerostar for comment. 

Aerostar’s website says it operates nine airports in Mexico, including Cancun. 

San Antonio International Airport History

San Antonio International was built as a military base in 1941 and became a commercial airport operated by the city in 1953. 

The city says it’s financially solid.  It’s in the midst of adding a new parking facility and improved services.   

In the past few years, however, San Antonio International has taken heat for not having more non-stop flights and for having average ticket prices that are more expensive than other Texas cities.  

In 2016, the airport reported the cancelation of direct flights to Mexico and said that contributed to a 21 percent drop in passengers traveling between the Alamo City and Mexico.

Local Officials Reaction

“I think it is safe to say we’d all like to see improvements at the International Airport specifically in terms of non-stop air service,” Sculley said, adding she is open to exploring private airport management.

“Our finance staff are actually taking a look at it to date. (They’re) trying to study, is there a reason for us to pursue this in a more serious way?"

County Judge Nelson Wolff says he’s open to further discussions but skeptical privatization is a good move.

Mayor Ivy Taylor and Wolff have similar concerns.

“The idea, I thought, sounded interesting, reasonable, but my question was why there weren’t any other American airports besides Puerto Rico that were implementing the model,” Taylor said.

Council member Joe Krier says there are national models to look at.  He’s enthusiastic, in part, because he sees an opportunity to increase city revenue without raising taxes.

“In the case of Heathrow in London, that company pays a fee in the tens of millions of dollars a year for the right to manage that facility.  So it is a major source of non-tax revenue for those communities,” said Krier.

Privatizing Airport Operations a Long-Term Process

Aviation consultant, Mike Boyd says it makes sense for the city to explore private airport management.

“If you give it to a company that is professionally in the business of managing airports you get the politicians out of it, and that’s a problem with a lot of U.S. airports,” Boyd said.

“If you give it to a private company, it’s run like a business and that’s probably as it should be if you can make it work,” he said.

Any privatization -if it happens- would be several years in the making. Serious discussions aren’t likely until after city elections in May.  The next council would have to weigh in, and if the city decides to move forward it would have to petition the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to contract with a private airport operator. 

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.