United Planes at the San Antonio International Airport
United Airlines jets park at the San Antonio International Airport. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

San Antonio travelers who book a flight from this city’s airport to London endure 12 to 20 hours of travel time, always with a layover in Houston, Atlanta, or another city.

Seeking to bring at least one nonstop transatlantic flight to San Antonio International Airport, San Antonio’s aviation department recently fielded a survey among business travelers to determine how often such travelers intend to fly and which destinations they want most.

“We have been actively discussing transatlantic service with multiple carriers for several years now,” said Brian Pratte, chief air service development administrator. “We already have a European market demand.”

In fact, he said, San Antonio is among the top five U.S. cities where the demand for flights to cities such as London, Paris, and Frankfurt is not met by direct flights to Europe.

The transatlantic flight survey went out last week to a large number of business travelers and agencies, he said, “not because the leisure traveler isn’t important … [but] the business traveler tends to be a little bit more specific on what their needs are.” Wednesday was the final day travelers could respond to the survey.

Results of the survey will be provided to airline officials next week, Pratte said. Combining air service data with feedback from the recent survey will help airlines develop flight schedules to fill the demand.

“Some of the questions we have specifically asked correlate to some information and feedback that they’re requesting,” Pratte said.

Those questions included what days of the week travelers are most likely to fly and how often. Pratte said his office has been proposing to carriers a schedule of three flights a week in the beginning, and the survey results confirmed that frequency would support travelers’ needs.

The survey also substantiated data showing that San Antonio has a high number of travelers (45 percent) who fly premium economy, business class or first class when headed across the pond.

“That’s the data which we already knew actually weighs heavily with the airlines because they’re sure that we’ve got people willing to pay for a level of premium service, which far exceeds the percentage of a lot of other markets,” Pratte said.

Also unlike other cities, San Antonio travelers flying to Europe are more likely to be headed for Frankfurt, Germany, rather than London, which is the most common destination for U.S. travelers.

“London barely edges out Frankfurt, in terms of total demand,” Pratte said. “But when you look at the country level, Germany is our largest European market.”

The same goes for Frankfurt, he added. San Antonio is also Frankfurt’s largest unserved U.S. market.

Frankfurt is the fifth-largest city in Germany and, as the largest financial center in continental Europe, is home to the Central European Bank. The city’s airport is the main hub for German’s flag carrier, Lufthansa, and is central to many U.S. military installations in that country.

Frankfurt is a half-hour drive north of San Antonio’s Sister City, Darmstadt.

“Given our cultural heritage, our military ties, our cybersecurity [industry], all those things, we have a pretty significant connection with Germany,” Pratte said.

It is common for San Antonio travelers to see men and women in military uniform, or people associated with the 66 federal agencies in San Antonio, at the airport, said Juan Ayala, director of military and veterans affairs for the City of San Antonio. As a Marine Corps general, Ayala often flew through European airports to reach missions in Africa and other countries.

But there’s also a large military medical presence in San Antonio, Ayala said, and Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the military medical center outside of the U.S., is about 85 miles southwest of Frankfurt.

Last year, SAT broke its passenger count records with more than 10 million travelers moving through the airport. That’s 320,000 more passengers than in 2018, and occurred despite last year’s grounding of the Boeing 737 Max. SAT’s largest carrier, Southwest Airlines, was the largest domestic user of the grounded plane.

Some of the passenger growth in 2019 was due to increased carrier service to Mexico, according to a recent report from the City’s Aviation department.

But last year also saw an end to one international flight – Air Canada’s nonstop route to Toronto – due to low usage, only two years after its start.

The goal for Pratte’s team is to bring nonstop transatlantic flights to SAT by next summer, but he acknowledges that it could stretch to summer 2022. Austin’s airport saw its first transatlantic flight take off for London in 2014 with British Airways, and now has two other transatlantic carriers – Lufthansa and Norwegian Air – with KLM Royal Dutch Airlines starting service later this year. “Getting that first flight is the hardest,” Pratte said. But “success begets success.”

Because airlines work on flight schedules five years out, even though the demand exists, there are many factors that come into play for carriers to enter a new market, Pratte said, including whether or not they have the aircraft available for such flights.

“So it’s an evolving conversation that you’re really just trying to get yourself up that laundry list of markets that they’ve got,” Pratte said.

On Thursday, the City Council approved spending $17 million on taxiway reconstruction, runway rehabilitation, and technology upgrades, with $6 million available from the Federal Aviation Administration and the remainder from other airport funding sources. 

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...