At San Antonio International Airport and across the nation, the recent holiday travel season looked promising — until it wasn’t.
With a record number of passengers taking to the air, it appeared the gift of recovery would be delivered to the industry after two years of suppressed travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then, on Dec. 21, about the same time a major winter storm began to sweep across the country, grounding planes, Southwest Airlines canceled thousands of flights nationwide due to a systems error that stranded pilots and passengers.
The Dallas-based carrier’s service accounts for about 40% of flight activity at the San Antonio airport, which is undergoing a 20-year, $1 billion upgrade to add gates, build a new terminal and make other improvements.
If recent Federal Aviation Administration grant funding was a welcome gift to help cover improvement costs, the Christmas travel trials made for an unforeseen challenge for airport officials and for the industry as a whole, according to some experts.
“It’s been a tough little holiday season,” said Jesus Saenz, director of airports for the City of San Antonio. But “it wasn’t just San Antonio. It impacted the entire nation.”
Air travel climbed steadily in 2022 following the historic shutdowns during the pandemic. But the numbers still aren’t what they were prior to that time.
In November 2022, the airport’s passenger numbers reached 856,336, an 11% increase over the same month in 2021.
During December and the first four days of January, about 503,000 passengers flew through the San Antonio airport. That’s up from about 432,000 during the same period in the previous year but down from the over 888,000 recorded passengers in December 2019.
It’s unclear exactly how Southwest’s recent woes affected SAT’s December 2022 numbers, but Saenz said San Antonio-based travelers were especially hard-hit by the weather delays and airline cancellations.
“We are 95% origin-to-destination. … People that leave here are going to one location nonstop,” he said. “That’s a big factor in people not being to get where they needed to get to. We just managed it and helped people as much as we could.”
In the parking garages and rental car facilities, the cold snap that hit San Antonio just before Christmas also made navigating the airport more difficult when freezing temperatures caused some escalators to shut down. Such situations are unavoidable, Saenz said.
But the airline cancellations provided some breathing room in the airport’s tight parking lots and garages, as did the additional spaces opened for the season and the airport’s new valet service.
Between the November travel rush and just before Christmas, however, only about 100 of the airport’s 10,000 total parking spaces went unused, Saenz said.
That’s a good sign, he added.
“Why are there so many parkers?” Saenz said. “We feel like the geographical radius of the people that are utilizing the airport is expanding, which is good for us.”
Nevertheless, a solution to the parking headaches is in the works. In the coming months, airport officials plan to release a request for proposals to contract parking services in an effort to boost efficiency and revenue.
Meanwhile, several airport upgrades are in process.
One of three new gates added to the terminals opened in December, allowing American Airlines to operate entirely from Terminal B. Another gate in the same terminal is set to open soon, Saenz said, along with another new gate in Terminal A that will bring the number of gates at the airport to 27.
In February, Saenz plans to update the City Council on a request for contractor bids to construct a new ground-loading facility in Terminal A that will add another five gates to the airport. Construction is expected to start this year.
Whether the new gates and upgrades will result in new airlines or new service at the San Antonio airport remains to be seen.
Spirit Airlines joined the airport’s carrier lineup in November, launching daily nonstop flights from San Antonio to Las Vegas and Orlando, Florida.
“We’re always chasing airlines — that is a constant for us,” Saenz said, declining to give details about any new air development agreements being made until the deals are completed. “We’re excited for what 2023 will bring.”