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

The Airport Advisory Commission received a nod of approval Wednesday from the San Antonio City Council to proceed with plans for a multimillion-dollar airport expansion to accommodate the city’s air travel demands 50 years into the future.

The need to potentially acquire more than 200 acres of adjacent commercial and industrial properties, along with concerns about increased noise, will require thoughtful planning and community involvement, several Council members said.

Councilman John Courage (D9), whose district includes the airport, said it’s “obvious” that the airport should remain at its current location, but said he’s already heard concerns from businesses in the possible acquisition zones and area residents.

“I think we need to really consider: How do we help in any potential relocation that we decide we need to make?” Courage said. “I don’t live that close, but I can tell you every morning at about 6 o’clock, I hear engines revving up at the airport. … How does this affect not only the travelers but the tens of thousands of families who live around the airport?”

The first phase of developing the strategic 50-year plan for the San Antonio International Airport (SAT) in San Antonio answered a simple question: Will an expanded airport fit in its current location? The answer is yes, according to a study released earlier this month. The second phase will involve finalizing details about runway locations, cost, and logistics, said John Dickson, the commission’s chair.

“We’re not done yet and we have a lot of work ahead of ourselves,” Dickson told City Council members.

The study, conducted by an engineering and planning firm at the commission’s request, showed that building a new airport elsewhere could cost between $5 billion and $10 billion and take 15-20 years. That option is “exceedingly unattractive” compared to building on the existing site that has the “strategic advantage” of being located 15 minutes from downtown, Dickson said.

Work on the second phase of the plan will begin immediately, said Dickson, a principal of Denim Group, a local cybersecurity firm. “I think the general theme is we’re going to keep the band [commission] together. So we’re going to regroup tomorrow … figure out the next steps.”

SAT has seen 27 months of consecutive passenger growth, and projections show that runways could hit target capacity in 2023, according to Aviation Department officials and the study.

“The committee’s report answers a question that has been looming for decades, and the answer is the city’s air service future is at San Antonio International,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who formed the commission in January. “The rapid growth in air traffic … means we have no time to waste. We must begin planning for SAT’s future immediately.”

Dependent, parallel runways on which planes can’t land and take off simultaneously could extend the airport’s target capacity to 2039 without acquiring land outside the facility’s footprint, Aviation Director Russ Handy said.

But to sustain San Antonio’s air traffic growth into 2068 would require independent parallel runways on which planes could land and take off at the same time, requiring the acquisition of about 221 acres off Jones Maltsberger and Nakoma roads.

One of three options that the Airport Advisory Committee is exploring would add a midfield, 65-gate terminal.
One of three options that the Airport Advisory Commission is exploring would add a midfield, 65-gate terminal, and independent parallel runways. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

As for the noise factor, Handy said, aircraft are getting quieter, and planners likely will be looking into better landing and takeoff routes to minimize sonic impact.

Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), whose district is directly east of the airport, said he would like to see a plan that minimizes the need for land acquisition.

New technology for air traffic control, aircraft, and as-yet-unknown advancements could drastically change the industry in the next 50 years, Dickson said, which could change the plan. “[Technology] is going to change a lot more in the next 50 years than it has in the last 50 years.”

How much the expansion will cost and where the money will come from depends on the specifics that will be determined in phase two, Dickson said.

Regardless of the plan, it will need resident and Council support, Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) said, but many of his constituents have other concerns.

“I don’t really care about the airport,” Pelaez said he has been told. “Fix my [road] traffic.”

Part of the problem is that the airport has not been a priority for San Antonio, Dickson said, so it’s a matter of more closely connecting the airport to families.

“Why would my grandmother care, who’s never flown?” Dickson said. “Because they don’t want their kids and grandkids to move away.”

The main takeaway is that “the airport is not landlocked” as previously assumed, Nirenberg said. “We’ve debunked the myth that the airport is the reason for economic non-competitiveness in the community.”

The second phase of the master plan will likely take several months, Dickson said, and possible land acquisition could take years if the city takes a phased-in approach.

“We need to pursue whatever options there are and not push those out to the future [because they] become harder and more expensive,” he said. “If you look at that land 20 or 30 years ago there was really nothing there.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org