The latest statistics from the airport appear to tell a story of slow recovery. 

A total of 763,606 passengers traveled through the San Antonio International Airport in December, data released by the airport show. 

That number exceeds by 112% the same month in 2020 when the pandemic put the brakes on a traditionally busy holiday travel season. But it’s still just 86% of the total passengers seen in 2019, just prior to the pandemic’s start.

The Thanksgiving holiday travel season was also slightly slower than usual, with passenger numbers in November reaching 89% of the levels seen during November 2019.

Nationally, Dec. 23 was the busiest travel day in U.S. airports during that month, with over 2.1 million passengers, according to travel checkpoint data provided by the Transportation Security Administration. The busiest day for airports during the previous month, for Thanksgiving travel, was Nov. 28, with 2.45 million total passengers. 

Similar passenger data for San Antonio seem to indicate people were ready to travel again, despite the emergence of the new omicron variant and skyrocketing case numbers in late December.

In all of 2021, more than 7.4 million passengers flew through the San Antonio airport, a jump of 85% over the previous year. Passenger totals were 72% lower than 2019, a year airport officials called “record-breaking,” with more than 10 million total passengers.

While the number of flights out of San Antonio to destinations within the United States dropped by 16% over December 2019, international traffic increased 27% due to added capacity on several routes to Mexico during December.

A recent report provided by airport officials stated that 2021 was a year of recovery with all airlines resuming service to markets that were temporarily suspended. Along with a return to normal in the number of seats offered for some flights, airlines also added a few new routes, and two new carriers joined the regular San Antonio lineup.

In May, Viva Aerobus launched direct service to León, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, and in June, Sun Country started summer seasonal service to Cancun. 

Southwest Airlines, the airport’s largest carrier, offered a new, holiday-seasonal service to Colorado Springs, even as its total capacity for the San Antonio airport remained below 38% of its 2019 capacity. The carrier struggled with thousands of canceled flights during the fall and further cancellations and delays in December.

Because that 38% is an annual figure, it does not reflect the steady recovery that occurred later in 2021, bringing Southwest’s capacity by December to 26% below that of 2019, according to Brian Pratte, SAT’s chief air service development officer.

“The first part of the year was a bit more challenging waiting for demand to recover,” Pratte said. “As leisure demand began to strengthen, most carriers began to add capacity back into the market.”

Some carriers added capacity faster than others, he added, with the challenges of bringing back both flight crews and aircraft contributing to a slower rebound for capacity. 

Last year, two new airlines also began service in San Antonio in 2021. 

In April, the city announced JetBlue Airways would begin offering direct service in October to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Boston Logan International. New carrier Breeze Airways chose San Antonio as one of its first markets and currently offers flights from San Antonio to Northwest Arkansas.

Despite ongoing virus surges affecting everything travel-related, from tourism to conventions and meetings, airport officials also expect new air service to launch from San Antonio this year.

Southwest Airlines is planning a new direct flight to Oklahoma City to start April 25 with service four days a week, increasing to six days in June. Delta Air Lines is scheduled to resume nonstop service to New York’s JFK Airport in May and Sun Country plans to restart its seasonal service to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Cancun, also in May. 

Starting in June, United Airlines is looking to increase capacity on its San Francisco route and Southwest Airlines will start new Saturday service to Albuquerque. 

It remains to be seen whether consumers are ready to book those flights.

A recent study by the airline trade group International Air Transport Association found that plane tickets sold in December for any time in 2022 stood at half of the December 2019 level. 

Because travelers tend to book last-minute, the decline will most likely be seen in actual traffic volumes during January and February 2022, the report stated. 

Though the association reported the slow ticket sales trend continuing into the first half of January, it predicts “rapid improvement” once the omicron wave recedes and travel restrictions are eased. 

In November, City Council approved a 20-year, $2.5 billion project to overhaul the San Antonio airport. The plan calls for extending a runway, adding a new terminal, increasing the number of gates and concessions, widening concourses, relocating the air traffic control tower, and improving and rerouting roadways for vehicle traffic.

Shari Biediger

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