While the current rise in COVID-19 cases is flattening travel at the San Antonio International Airport and across the nation, local aviation officials said Wednesday that by summer 2021 they expect the airport could see passenger counts hit 75 percent of last year’s levels.

With an eye toward those projections, Director of Airports Jesus Saenz has launched Phase Two of planning for the future of the airport, while work continues to raise consumer confidence that air travel can be safe amid the pandemic.

In a Wednesday briefing to City Council, Saenz provided an overview of current passenger activity and his department’s efforts to reassure travelers, as well as a review of the 20-year master plan guiding upgrades to both the airfields and terminals at the San Antonio airport.

“Air service nationwide continues to slowly recover from the devastating reductions in April of 2020 this year,” Saenz said. “We’ve been fortunate in San Antonio to have outpaced the national average for almost every week since the pandemic began.”

The current seven-day rolling average of passengers is 60 percent of last year’s count, Saenz reported. The San Antonio airport now offers only 30 non-stop destinations compared to 41 in December 2019. More than half of the concessionaires in both airport terminals have reopened, and three new vendors are opening soon, including Dunkin’ donuts.

Planning for an airport that can serve anticipated capacity for the next 20 years is the focus of the Strategic Development Plan (SDP) that Saenz intends to finalize in 2021. 

The first phase of the plan was released in October 2018, and determined the airport could meet future needs without being relocated. The council then approved moving forward with Phase Two of the SDP process. 

“The two-phase strategic development planning process ultimately will produce development options regarding land use, facilities, and services required for the airport to accommodate the projected population growth and prosperity of the San Antonio region,” said Saenz, who stepped into the role of aviation director in February

Forecasts have shown that the airport’s current airfield capacity and layout is sufficient through 2040, he said. For the next 10 years, officials will be focused on corrective safety measures that include extending both the main runway an additional 340 feet and an existing taxiway.

The San Antonio International Airport is focusing on bringing in new travelers from outside markets in its strategic plan. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

“Additionally, this will extend the runway to 8,840 feet, increasing our current range to Central European markets, when necessary,” Saenz said. “As we strategically plan for our airfield for the next 20 years, we are forecasting and planning the extension of [the main runway] to 10,000 feet, significantly adding additional international capability to many more destinations.”

With the anticipated expansions, the airport’s runways would be able to service aircraft large enough for direct flights to Central Europe, Africa, and Asia. 

The existing terminals also will be reviewed during Phase 2, Saenz said. “As with the airfield layout program, we will begin the technical and inventory requirements for our terminals, and we’ll bring forward terminal options for consideration by city council in February of 2021.”

When he was hired for the job as director of airports, Saenz said, he was asked to ensure the San Antonio airport reflected the look and feel of the city. Toward that end, the department recently hired a consultant and will soon seek the community’s input before presenting design plans to the council for approval. 

Airport passenger activity may not return to normal levels anytime in the near future, but previously approved capital projects will go forward in 2021. 

Starting in February, improvements to the north taxiway will be made, and the west cargo facility will be upgraded with new facilities for users and tenants. 

“Also already approved by Council … we will be bringing two important and necessary terminal upgrades to help meet current and future demands,” Saenz said, and a request will be made to upgrade controls to the baggage handling system to increase capacity at both terminals.  

“We will be bringing a Terminal B expansion package recommending an increase to our gate capacities, with the installation of new advanced security lanes, expanded food and beverage concession space, and other additional infrastructure improvements,” Saenz added.

Despite a pandemic arriving in the middle of the process, Mayor Ron Nirenberg welcomed the start of Phase 2 of planning for the airport’s future, knowing the capacity of the existing airport can serve the seventh largest city in the United States into the future. 

“I think [hearing that] was a relief to many of us, but it also meant that we had some work to do, and so I’m glad to get to this next step,” he said. “Where I think the imagination of the public will go in, [and] has already gone actually, is what that means to creating a sense of place here in San Antonio as an airport that no longer looks like it was built in 1970. I’m excited by that.”

Saenz said he will be seeking public input for the plans in Phase 2 in the coming months, but most sessions will be held virtually, similar to how recent noise-exposure mapping exercises were conducted. More than 250 people participated in those exercises, he said.

Council members who represent districts near the airport and in the flight path urged Saenz to share with residents the development plans, especially as they impact noise abatement.

“I’d certainly like to be given as much advance notice to get that word out to my district, as to when that’s going to be happening so that we can get that getting as many people involved in this as possible,” said District 10 Councilman Clayton Perry. “Because it will definitely impact our residents here in District 10.”

District 9 Councilman John Courage also said his constituents would want to voice their concerns when it comes to noise abatement, extending runways, and expanding the footprint of the airport. 

“I think the more we can reassure a lot of the business people around the airport, as well as addressing the sound problem around the airport, the more reassured people will be that this is going to be the kind of plan they will continue to support,” Courage said. 

The strategic planning process continues through much of 2021, according to a schedule Saenz presented, with a funding plan due in May and Council expected to review and vote on the plan in the fall. 

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...