High-velocity water cannons formed arcs of water on the tarmac at the San Antonio International Airport last Monday afternoon – a traditional salute for the first daily nonstop flight arriving from Toronto, Ontario.
Briefly suspending presentations by local dignitaries, the spectacle drew to the windows travelers who were catching the next plane home to Toronto or connecting flights beyond. Most had been attending a weeklong education research conference at the Convention Center.
Celebrations waned somewhat after the plane’s passengers, including Aviation Director Russ Handy, disembarked and Air Canada gate attendants announced a departure delay due to weather.
But representatives from the City’s air service development task force and a trade mission delegation were still gratified that May 1, the long-anticipated start date announced last December, had finally arrived.
“It’s a big deal for the San Antonio International Airport, but it’s even bigger for the broader business community in San Antonio,” said Economic Development Foundation President and CEO Jenna Saucedo-Herrera.
Led by Saucedo-Herrera, the delegation included leaders such as City Councilman Joe Krier (D9), Assistant City Manager Carlos Contreras, Honorary Consul of Canada Tullos Wells, and representatives from Port San Antonio.
Over the course of two days, the group met with U.S. consulate officials in Canada, the Canadian National Automotive Parts Manufacturers’ Association, the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance Cyber Advisory Council, and several Canadian tech and cybersecurity companies that Saucedo-Herrera wouldn’t name. But the goal, she said, was to stimulate economic development opportunities for San Antonio.
“The increased connectivity and the increased air service between San Antonio and Toronto represents significant growth in similar markets by way of the IT industry, cybersecurity, even bioscience and energy,” she added. “Of our five target sectors in San Antonio, they are growing rapidly in Toronto. So it makes sense that we build upon that.”
The financial services capital of Canada, Toronto is home to some of the world’s largest banks as well as major energy companies and tech giants, including Google parent company Alphabet Inc., IBM Canada, Cisco Systems, Symantec, Microsoft Canada, and Autodesk. Life sciences and tourism are major industries there as well.
Situated on the northwest shore of Lake Ontario, near Michigan and New York, Toronto is not only Canada’s largest city, but also the fourth largest city in North America. With 2.8 million residents, the capital of Ontario is also one of the most diverse cities in the world – half of the population was born outside of Canada.
An estimated 40 million people visit the city every year, and of those, more than 26,000 are flying from San Antonio. Another 78,000 fly from San Antonio to other cities in Canada.
Air Canada is the country’s largest airline, serving 190 destinations worldwide. The flagship airline, recognizable by its prominent red maple leaf logo, offers direct routes to and from cities across the United States, Mexico, Europe, the Middle East, South America, and Asia.
Partnering with Air Canada, City Manager Sheryl Sculley said, is “tapping into this comprehensive transportation network that will create travel opportunities and connectivity for residents as well as business that has not been available previously.”
Air Canada already operates nonstop flights to Toronto from Dallas, Houston, and Austin. San Antonio offered the airline a financial “start-up” incentive package valued at close to $300,000 in the first year to bring the direct flight here. Such incentives are not unusual.
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, San Antonio’s nearest neighboring hub serving 12.5 million passengers a year, has managed to attract other nonstop service to international destinations such Frankfurt, London, and four cities in Mexico.
Air passenger traffic in the state capital was up 8.5% in March this year over last, compared to San Antonio’s 7.7% increase over the same period – growth that occurred despite losing Southwest Airlines service to Mexico City, capacity reductions by AeroMexico to Monterrey, and service adjustments by United to Cancun.
And while other airlines here have increased San Antonio’s capacity and service in the last year, including Frontier with flights to several major U.S. cities, the San Antonio International Airport continues to experience “leakage” to Austin’s airport.
In 2016, about 7% of area travelers booked flights out of Austin rather than San Antonio, said Handy, for reasons that include cheaper rates, access to other destinations, direct flights, and convenience – especially for those living in areas northeast of San Antonio.
In February 2016, the City of San Antonio introduced a new five-year strategic plan to boost air service. The plan was the result of recommendations from a consulting group, Seabury Airline Planning Group, working with area leaders. One of those recommendations was the creation of a full-time air service administrator position within the City of San Antonio Aviation Division.
Brian Pratte began in that role just over one year ago and said he has worked aggressively to bring the Air Canada flight here. A 16-year industry veteran who last worked for the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, Pratte doesn’t consider Austin competition.
“We know carriers like [Air Canada] view us as two different markets,” he said. “San Antonio needs to focus on San Antonio and stop focusing on what Austin’s doing. They are wonderful neighbors and it’s a wonderful airport … but they are a different market than San Antonio. Are they actively going after Asian carriers? Probably.
“But I’m focused on what makes San Antonio San Antonio, and why carriers should fly here. Yes, we keep an eye on what they are doing, but that doesn’t sway us.”
It’s a strategy that so far has resulted in a total air service increase of 4.3% in the first year of the five-year plan, which had originally called for a 3.6% growth. Pratte attributes the increase to new direct service to Kansas City, new carriers providing service to existing routes, and a new Southwest Airlines flight to Houston.
“So it’s not a big news story, but we are exceeding our goals, and it’s showing in our passenger numbers,” he said. “March was a huge record month.”
Another outcome of the five-year plan is the expansion of an air service task force, a group of 30 leading community stakeholders – from industries such as tourism and business – who have been working together on air service development.
“The airport itself doesn’t create demand. The community creates demand,” Pratte said. “There’s got to be reason … whether business, leisure, conventions. It’s up to us to unearth latent demand that may not be readily visible.”
Some of the demand is clearly already there, and the airlines know it. Mexican low-cost airline Volaris, for example, has already received DOT approval to provide direct service to Mexico City, although flights have not been scheduled yet.
“We’re always looking at a laundry list of markets,” said Pratte, who spoke of Central and South America for direct air service opportunities as well as Reagan National Airport in the heart of Washington, D.C.
Last week, Mayor Ivy Taylor and County Judge Nelson Wolff announced the creation of another group called the City-County Air Service Infrastructure Task Force, which will be led by former mayor Henry Cisneros, SA Chamber Immediate Past Chairman Renée Flores and Krier, and focus on current air transportation resources within the city, specifically the aviation infrastructure.
In recent years, the City has spent more than $100 million on construction at Terminal B of the airport, $35 million renovating Terminal A, $175 million for the consolidated car rental facility currently under construction, and $23 million improving the Customs & Immigration area of the airport.
Improvements appear to be ongoing. When Handy traveled to Toronto last weekend, part of his mission included touring the “industry benchmark” control center at Toronto’s Pearson Airport in anticipation of modernizing the control tower at San Antonio International.
“The Texas market as a whole has been very good for Air Canada,” said Eric Bordeleau, director of regional airlines for Air Canada. “San Antonio was a good opportunity in terms of tourism. It offers a lot of beyond-Toronto connectivity. What we look for in a marketplace is not what you can bring to Canada, but what your market offers to the world. We want to be able to connect the world to San Antonio and San Antonio to the world as well, through our network.”
For this report, Air Canada invited the Rivard Report aboard the inaugural flight to Toronto.
As on any international flight, valid passports were required. Crew instructions and in-flight entertainment were provided in two languages, English and French.
We were seated next to a university researcher and mother of three who lives in a desegregated kibbutz in Israel. She was eager to return home after her first visit to San Antonio for the education conference. Her itinerary included connecting flights to Frankfurt and then Israel.
Another passenger, a Trinidad native, was destined for her home in Toronto after spending a month in San Antonio visiting a daughter and two grandchildren.
“I live in Toronto,” she said. “I make this trip three to four times a year, and it was always a long trip. So this is amazing, because it means no more going through anywhere else. Even if we’re late leaving, once we leave, we know where we will be when we arrive.”
On our return flight four days later, there appeared to be a mix of business and leisure travelers filling about two-thirds of the seats. One woman from Montreal was flying to San Antonio for the weekend to meet her husband, who was already here on business.