Southwest Airlines. Photo by Scott Ball.
Southwest Airlines plans to add seven flights, plus a nonstop to Albuquerque, in June. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Reports that two airlines plan to suspend daily routes out of the San Antonio International Airport in January were tempered this week with news that seven flights are being added this summer and an even more aggressive plan to attract flights has been cleared for takeoff.

Airport officials confirmed Southwest Airlines is suspending its daily Oakland flight on Jan. 3. American Airlines is ending a daily flight to Philadelphia on Jan. 6.

Both already have plans to bring service back in March 2020, when the Boeing 737 Max is expected back in action, said Brian Pratte, chief air services development officer.

The aircraft manufacturer’s 737 Max planes were grounded following two fatal crashes overseas that killed more than 350 passengers and crewmembers in late 2018 and in March of this year.

Boeing, which has stored some of its inventory at the company’s Port San Antonio facility since the grounding, has said it expects certification to come from the Federal Aviation Administration in December, with clearance to resume flights in January.  But if those target dates change, the airlines will adjust again.

“Airlines adjust all the time,” Pratt said. “There’s a reason the airlines are profitable now – it’s because they’ve been able to really control capacity. And with that capacity-based environment, they can kind of be very, very nimble at what they need to do.”

Starting in June 2020, Southwest will make frequency adjustments by adding seven flights, plus a nonstop to Albuquerque. That amounts to an increase in capacity of about 5.5 percent more seats, Pratt said.

In addition to Albuquerque, which will start with Saturday service only, the new flights include more daily flights to Atlanta, Nashville, Denver, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, which will go from five to six flights daily.

“I know when I first started here almost four years ago, we only had four flights to Houston,” Pratt said. “We’ve made some pretty good progress.”

Even more flights could be added to the departures and arrivals board if the goals of the City’s air service incentive program are met. On Thursday, City Council approved changes to the incentives program that was created to attract new airlines to the San Antonio market.

The program offers to carriers thousands of dollars worth of marketing incentives and fee waivers in exchange for nonstop service to certain target markets for 12 to 24 consecutive months, or seasonal service for three months.

Targeted markets include:

  • Washington, Reagan National (DCA)
  • San Jose, California (SJC)
  • New York LaGuardia (LGA)
  • Cincinnati (CVG)
  • Boston (BOS)
  • Cleveland (CLE)
  • Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina (RDU)
  • Columbus, Ohio (CMH)
  • Sacramento, California (SMF)
  • Pittsburgh (PIT)
  • Orange County, California (SNA)
  • San Juan, Puerto Rico (SJU)
  • Indianapolis (IND)
  • Hawaii (all airports)

Since the program began in 2015, the incentives have been applied 25 times, with 23 of those flights still remaining here, Pratt said.

Funding for the program comes from the 2020 Airport Operating and Maintenance Budget at a cost of $800,000, the same amount as last year, Pratt said. The aviation department based the amount on anticipated air service announcements. “Should we garner even more wins than anticipated, we will look at the need to move monies around in our existing budget or whether or not we need to return to Council for more,” he said.

While the budget remains the same, the structure of the program is changing to more aggressively pursue targeted domestic flights and more transoceanic flights.

The program is increasing the level of marketing dollars offered for qualified domestic flights from $200,000 to $300,000 in the first year and $150,000 in the second year. International flights will be eligible for $500,000 in the first year, an increase of $200,000, and $250,000 in the second.

“The world of air service development has become more and more competitive – we’re competing for the same finite level of air service every other airport, quite honestly, in the world is fighting for,” Pratt said.

“So if there’s the potential to make San Antonio a little bit more advantageous with a program that is really meant to mitigate ramp-up costs, sometimes, we can push that over the edge with an aggressive program like this.”

In October, the latest month for which the aviation services has released numbers, a total of 895,948 passengers flew through the airport, a decrease of 0.4 percent from the year before. Pratt expects November to be about the same, despite the busy holiday travel season.

“That’s not a negative thing – it’s because of the Max [grounding] and a number of markets being reduced temporarily,” he said. By the end of the year, it is estimated that the San Antonio International Airport will see a 20 percent increase in passenger traffic over the last three years.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.