One piece of the multifaceted plan to improve the San Antonio International Airport has the potential to increase air service while making air travel less costly. And it’s not a gleaming new terminal.

Officials recently unveiled big plans for a new terminal at the airport, proposing a modern facility that would add capacity, class and efficiency to the city’s aging airport. 

The estimated billion-dollar-plus project is expected to be completed in 2028, with pre-construction work set to begin next year. 

In the meantime, plans for another kind of facility that officials say makes the airport better able to compete for air service is also in the works and closer to reality despite being turned down for federal funding last year.

A ground load facility, commonly used at smaller airports such as Burbank and Long Beach in California, and by low-cost carriers, is designed to efficiently move people on and off airplanes with less cost, thus reducing airfares.

But large airports also use these facilities — the Denver International Airport will open one for use by Frontier Airlines starting in 2024.

A ground load facility in San Antonio is among the projects included in the 20-year, $2.5 billion airport strategic development plan approved by City Council in November 2021 to improve runways, roadways, vehicle parking and other airport facilities. 

The new facility would allow passengers to board or exit a plane from the tarmac, similar to how air travel looked before passenger boarding bridges, also known as jetways, came into widespread use. 

In a ground load facility, travelers use a system of switchback ramps that lead from the ground to the front and back of the plane.

Plans call for the two-story, pre-engineered metal building to connect at the southwest end of Terminal A at SAT and feature three departure and arrival gates along with new concession space that’s also accessible to passengers in the main terminal. 

Pre-construction work, including the relocation of a fence and other site work, is set to start later this summer. The ground load facility is expected to be completed in early 2025.

A rendering of the future ground load facility concession area.
A rendering of the future ground load facility concession area. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Efficiency and low fares

A ground load facility makes sense for San Antonio for a number of reasons, said Tim O’Krongley, deputy director of aviation for the City of San Antonio. 

The addition of a ground load facility to the airport’s two terminals increases the type of airline and service that can be offered to San Antonio travelers, he said.

Ground loading is more efficient and less expensive for airlines than traditional terminal gates and boarding bridges and thus makes for quicker flight turnaround times for airlines, by about 10 minutes on average.

The airlines are asking for it, said Jacob Tyler, air service development manager, especially ultra-low-cost carriers that are bringing more air service to SAT in recent years.  

“This is a part of the business we were really lacking before,” Tyler said. The cheaper fares such carriers offer benefit people who are seeking low-cost travel or an inexpensive weekend getaway, and drive down prices across all airlines.

That opens the market and brings more people to San Antonio, he said. “It’s a really good thing for our community from the economic impact that any new traveler brings.”

The facility’s proximity to the existing federal inspection area in Terminal A is expected to attract air service for international arrivals, especially from Mexico. 

Airport development staff are in talks with several airlines about leasing space at the ground load facility, but no agreements have been finalized. 

FAA grant funding

Low fares also make air travel more affordable for a wider group of people, including historically disadvantaged populations, which is one criterion of grant funding available through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the bipartisan infrastructure law

Another of the seven FAA grant priorities is improving aging infrastructure, said Shane Harbinson, chief development officer. Because the ground load facility will provide upgraded amenities to passengers using Terminal A, a facility built in 1984, the project is a good fit for such funding.  

Last year, the city requested $50 million in FAA grant funding, most of it intended for the ground load facility. 

“We were not successful in getting any money for that,” Harbinson said. 

But city officials will try again now they have design cost estimates in hand and projects that are ready to go, he said. 

O’Krongley said he expects a response from the FAA on another round of grant requests in the next couple of weeks. Even if the funding doesn’t come, the ground load facility will be built regardless. 

“The grant would be really great to have — we hope to get it,” he said. “But this is an asset that we’ve planned for and need at the airport and we will continue to move down our path.”

A rendering shows the ground load facility and its proximity to the tarmac. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

Terminal future

The future for Terminal A is not as well defined. 

Built before the ubiquitous cell phone and the prevalence of carry-on bags, Terminal A doesn’t meet current standards on several fronts, including the waiting areas, which became insufficient with the evolution of aircraft. 

“Back in the ‘80s, the DC-9 was probably the most popular aircraft and that was about a 110-seat aircraft,” Harbinson said, “where now it’s the 737 Max that they’re designing for, which ranges from 150 to 180 passenger seats.”

It was probably state-of-the-art when it was built, O’Krongley said, “but we don’t operate that way anymore.”

On Feb. 15, Director of Airports Jesus Saenz told City Council that Terminal A is estimated to have about five to eight more years of viability. “But after that, it’s a demolition,” Saenz said. 

It could also be repurposed, O’Krongley said, as a terminal for ultra-low-cost carriers or for other airport functions as large spaces like a terminal are easy to renovate. It just adds to the mix of facilities that the airport has to offer both airlines and passengers. 

A newly built terminal with more gates, meanwhile, gives airport officials the time and capacity to make plans for the old terminal. 

An access gate in Terminal A now used by air service vehicles and not airlines will be decommissioned to make way for the ground load facility, he said. 

The facility itself won’t be designed or built as a temporary structure. 

If anything, it will help set the standard for future projects, said Javier Castro, senior architect in the airport’s construction and development division. 

“At the end of [Terminal A], it’s going to open up and feel really expansive, really open,” he said, describing the upgrades to a space in the terminal that is now uninviting and lacks seating and concession space.

“It’s also an opportunity for us to model what that look and feel and that space is going to be for any upcoming projects,” Castro said. 

This article has been updated to clarify the description of the boarding system at the ground load facility and of an access gate in Terminal A.

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Shari Biediger

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