On three days of the recent spring break week, the San Antonio International Airport saw passenger numbers surge higher than the levels seen in 2019.
By contrast, in 2020, it was a “ghost town,” said U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro.
The San Antonio Democrat was back at the airport Monday morning and, recalling his flights to the nation’s capital at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, told officials he intends to fight for funding to improve the airport as air travel returns to more normal levels.
Last year, Congress directed billions of dollars in grants and loans to pandemic relief to prop up the nation’s airports. The infrastructure bill passed by lawmakers in November 2021 earmarked over $11 million annually for the San Antonio airport for the next five years.
Castro said he will push for even more federal funding for the airport’s $2.5 billion, 20-year master plan.
“There’s a billion dollars that the [Federal Aviation Administration] is going to put out to bid to allow airports to compete for, including medium-sized airports like San Antonio,” Castro said. “I want to make sure that we’re as supportive as possible” in helping secure more funding.
The airport is a hub for tourism, he said, but also for trade and promoting job growth, and it needs to be expanded to support future economic development. “There’s no way that growth happens without the help of the federal government and without the coordination of state, local and federal partners.”
The sweeping airport overhaul that San Antonio’s City Council approved in November calls for airfield improvements, increasing gates and concessions, widening concourses, building a transportation and parking center, relocating the air traffic control tower and rerouting roadways.
The largest part of the plan is adding a third terminal south of Terminal A that is estimated to cost nearly $1 billion.
Construction has already started on three new gates, two in Terminal B and one in Terminal A, which will add air service capacity to the airport’s existing 24 gates. Work has also begun to reconstruct a taxiway and expand the cargo building.
To fund those projects, airport officials are counting on regular FAA airport improvement programs and federal grants in addition to airport revenue and revenue bonds.
Under the bipartisan infrastructure law, San Antonio is eligible for allocations through the airport infrastructure grant in the amount of $11.7 million annually. The city must cover 25% of the cost of projects supported by those funds.
The infrastructure bill also makes available a competitive grant for terminal and roadway projects. Medium-size airports like San Antonio are eligible for grants of $150 million annually for five years, with the city required to pick up 20% of a project’s tab.
“The terminal and roadway and associated enabling projects are the ones that we will be submitting for those competitive projects,” said Jesus Saenz, director of airports for the City of San Antonio, speaking to the council’s Transportation Committee on Monday.
Saenz said capacity and improvement projects will help the airport keep up with the passenger levels it was experiencing in 2019, growth that appears to be resuming in 2022.
Indicators show passenger levels are already returning to pre-pandemic levels of 10 million a year.
“We’re about 90% to 95% of where we were in 2019,” he said. “[We] had an incredible spring break.”
Airlines serving the San Antonio airport offer 40 nonstop flights, and Saenz said he expects that to grow to 43 by the end of the year. Also, with added service to Mexico, there are 59% more international flights now than in 2019.
“We’re continuing to bring additional flight activity to the city and we want to continue to work that, but if you don’t have gates you don’t have anywhere to put them,” Saenz said.
Saenz told Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6), the committee’s chair, that he did not know how many airports San Antonio would be vying with for the infrastructure grant, but added, “We’re very competitive.”
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) told Saenz he wanted to know where the remaining funds would come from for airport improvement projects.
Airport officials have a finance plan that accounts for all spending over the next 15 years “to ensure we’re not going to go spend money we can’t spend,” Saenz said.
But because funding from federal sources is key, Castro assured airport officials of his support in Congress.
“The federal government obviously has a lot more resources to fund the projects here … and the amount of money that you would need to generate locally in fees or taxes, whatever it may be, that’s a pretty high amount,” Castro said. “So you really need to lean on the federal government.
“But I do think that the state government could be more stepping up, and we ought to go after that money as well.”