Passengers wait to board an aircraft. Photo by Scott Ball.
Passengers wait to board an aircraft. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Air Canada will launch daily nonstop air service between San Antonio and Toronto on May 1, 2017,  airline and City officials announced Wednesday, giving San Antonio a direct flight to an international destination outside Mexico.

Toronto, Canada’s largest and most diverse city with 2.65 million people, is a gateway city for Air Canada flights to dozens of international destinations in Europe, Asia, and Africa. Click here to view the airline’s global flight map.

Canadian-bound San Antonians now travel primarily to Houston and secondarily to Austin and Dallas to make connections, according to local aviation officials, which adds additional cost and time making the connection and clearing U.S. Customs. A more affordable, less time-consuming connection between San Antonio and Toronto is expected to generate more passenger traffic from both cities, sending more locals north and bringing more Canadian visitors here.

“Daily nonstop service to Toronto is great for San Antonio,” Mayor Ivy Taylor stated in a press release. “Canada is among the city’s top international leisure markets, and this new service will provide new opportunities for connections to Air Canada’s vast network of destinations in Canada and beyond.”

Air Canada will be the 11th carrier operating at San Antonio International Airport (SAT). There are now 38 nonstop destinations served by SAT.

“We are delighted to bring the Maple Leaf to San Antonio next year,” said Lisa Pierce, Air Canada’s senior director, U.S. sales and market development. “The new service will offer more travel options for local residents, both to visit Canada or to connect conveniently to our international network.”

Air Canada carrier will fly an Embraer E175 between the two cities, a narrow body, medium range aircraft configured with nine business class seats and 64 economy seats, each with a 100v outlet and touch screen video screen.

The southbound flight will depart from Toronto Pearson International Airport at 1:15 pm (EST) and arrive at San Antonio International at 4:04 p.m. (CST), a flight of approximately three hours, 49 minutes. After a 20-minute turnaround, the flight will depart San Antonio at 4:40 pm (CST) and arrive in Toronto at 8:45 pm (EST), a flight of three hours, five minutes. The difference in flight times, an aviation official told the Rivard Report, is due largely to prevailing winds.

News of the new daily nonstop comes one day after City officials announced the hiring of retired Air Force Gen. Russell “Russ” Handy as the City’s new aviation director. San Antonio International Airport operates as a department of city government. Handy will report to Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras. Handy, a former fighter pilot, retired from the Air Force in October after a 20-year career in military and civil aerospace operations. His official start date is Jan. 9, 2017.

A major challenge for Handy will be convincing other airlines to establish operations here and to expand the number of cities that can be reached via nonstop flights. Business and leisure travelers see the limited number of airlines and nonstop destinations to be a growing issue holding back the city’s economic development and as a destination for leisure travelers.

Handy will have to deal with what aviation officials call the city’s “passenger leakage rate,” which accounts for more than 16% of all San Antonio travelers using other airports as their point of departure and arrival. Half, or 8.2% of all San Antonio air travelers, now drive to Austin to catch flights that are either less expensive, occur with greater frequency, or simply are unavailable in San Antonio. More than one million flights to and from Austin and Houston are booked by passengers who live in San Antonio and choose to use Austin-Bergstrom or Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and William P. Hobby Airport. Stopping that leakage would result in major surge of traffic at San Antonio International.

The much-heralded daily nonstop service between Austin and London on British Airways has served as a particular indicator of rapidly growing air travel in and out of Austin versus incremental growth and fewer choices of destinations in San Antonio. Other carriers offering nonstop service to domestic destinations from Austin-Bergstrom also are an attraction. The Jet Blue service between Austin and Boston is, perhaps, the leading example of a domestic nonstop that attracts significant passenger traffic from San Antonio.

While aviation officials expect San Antonio will set a new record for the number of passengers using San Antonio International in 2016, the growth to more than eight million will be a small percentage, while traffic at Austin-Bergstrom, with more than 12 million passengers, is growing robustly.

City officials credit the recent hiring of Air Service Administrator Brian Pratte as key to identifying Toronto as a viable market and to bringing a new level of industry expertise to aviation management here. Pratte and the recently-departed acting aviation director, retired Air Force Gen. Noel Thomas “Tom” Jones, recently completed a five-year strategic plan, which has been presented to a council committee but has yet to come before City Council for consideration.

Seabury Aviation Associates, a consulting firm hired by the City to conduct background research to inform the strategic plan, found that 44% of San Antonio businesses responded “no” when asked if San Antonio International meet’s their company’s business needs. The number of nonstop flights was cited as the top reason.

The new strategic plan follows the work carried out by the Air Service Development Task Force, formed by the City, the San Antonio Greater Chamber of Commerce, and was headed by Arthur Coulombe, general manager for the JW Marriott. A number of new nonstop flights were added in the 2015-16 time period, and SAT traffic continued to grow, even as travel to and from Mexico declined by an alarming 22% rate.

Wednesday’s Air Canada announcement and the hiring of Handy as the new aviation director, local officials hope, will trigger a new period of aviation growth and service in San Antonio. Mayor Taylor recently announced that she and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff will form a City-County task force to address aviation challenges, but there has been no public movement on that front.

“Canada has long been an important market for the city’s economic development efforts,”  City Manager Sheryl Sculley stated in the Wednesday announcement. “Toronto is a global business center, which is especially significant for our Aerospace, Bioscience, Technology and New Energy sectors.”

“The airport has stepped-up its approach to air service development, and today’s announcement of a new international nonstop reinforces San Antonio’s ability to attract routes that will benefit our business community,”  Councilman Joe Krier (D9) stated.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.