While San Antonio International Airport is in its 17th month of record-breaking traffic growth, many business and tourism travelers still say it lacks direct flights to and from other major destinations.

In an effort to take on this and other challenges facing San Antonio’s aviation industry, Mayor Ron Nirenberg on Tuesday announced the formation of an Airport System Development Committee.

“This will be a data-driven and future-looking analysis of our transportation needs,” Nirenberg stated in a news release. “There have been many proposals floated over the past 30 years about the airport. This committee will be the City’s guide for how it makes strategic decisions in this area.”

Former Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Wolff in May 2017  created a task force to “explore options to ensure adequate air service for the region by 2040,” according to previous reports. But that effort fell off the radar soon after Taylor lost her bid for re-election in June.

“That task force never convened,” Nirenberg told the Rivard Report Tuesday, and its mission lacked articulation. The new committee, which will meet for the first time later this month, will not have that problem, he said.

The committee’s primary mission will lie in answering the years-old question, “Where should the international airport be?,” Nirenberg said. Given the city’s growth and competition from other regional airports – which is only expected to increase – should it stay where it is? Or should it move elsewhere – say, Port San Antonio or San Marcos?

“[Previously] we hadn’t had an effort to understand the data and opportunities that exist,” the mayor explained.

Nirenberg appointed John Dickson, principal of local cybersecurity firm Denim Group, as chair of the 21-member committee comprised of community and business representatives, including aviation industry leaders.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg listens to the Tobacco 21 proposal at B Session.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg listens to a presentation during a City Council meeting in December 2017. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“One thing I know about John, besides his expertise in cybersecurity and entrepreneurship, is he’s probably the single most traveled guy I know,” Nirenberg said.

Dickson served in the U.S. Air Force, was part of then-Mayor Wolff’s staff, and worked in economic development before taking on his air travel-demanding role in cybersecurity.

The scope of the committee’s focus is wide, Dickson told the Rivard Report Tuesday. “It’s all on the table. We’re going to look broadly at everything,” from airline incentives to the development of a regional airport with Austin to collaborations with Port San Antonio and Joint-Base San Antonio, he said.

The City and Port San Antonio commissioned a report on “Coordination of Airport Roles” that was completed in 2015. It proposed various coordination strategies between San Antonio International Airport, Stinson Municipal Airport, and Kelly Field.

To download the report, click here.

“As part of this process, we’re going to capture what others have done before,” Dickson said, but “to some degree, I’m hoping that we get a clean slate.”

Dickson emphasized that the committee will focus on obtaining and analyzing data to guide its recommendations.

“This is a fact-based activity,” he said. “Our job is to provide clarity and some public policy input to the full-time [City] staff and elected officials.”

John Dickson, a former Air Force officer and CEO of the Denim Group
John Dickson Credit: Courtesy / Denim Group

The City will hire aviation planning consultants to help the committee develop recommendations, Dickson said. He hopes the committee can deliver those recommendations by the end of 2018, though a deadline has not yet been determined.

“This is going to be the deepest [aviation] strategy session that we’ve had in at least a decade,” he said.

The focus on data instead of politics is intentional, Nirenberg said. “It’s a non-political group made up of business and community leaders who will really dive into the data agnostically and determine our best path forward.”

The 2017 task force was launched as a partnership between the City and County, but Nirenberg’s committee does not include County leadership. Three members of the defunct task force – Kim Lubel, chair of the CST Brand board; Todd Piland, an executive vice president for H-E-B; and retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Edward Rice – will also serve on the new committee. (See a full list of committee members at the end of this article.)

“The County is not part of it, and that’s okay with us,” Wolff said. “We’re not in the airport business.”

The task force could have served the same purpose, he said, but it “never got anywhere because [Taylor] lost the election. … [Nirenberg] picked it up [and] it continues in a different vein.”

Nirenberg pulled together “a strong committee,” Wolff said. “It’s good leadership on his part.”

According to City officials, leisure and tourism industries accounted for about 70 percent of travelers flying in and out of San Antonio’s airport last year.

“Decisions will be made as to how we grow and where does that airport structure play into it,” Casandra Matej, CEO of Visit San Antonio, wrote in an email. “This will undoubtedly impact the travel industry. The direction we go will determine how we market around the world. We already have strong connections with Mexico and now Canada, but will we someday have the capability to be a gateway for overseas?”

The nonprofit Visit San Antonio promotes the city worldwide. Matej will serve as a member of the new committee and emphasized the need for more transcontinental flights to and from San Antonio.

“As the third-largest industry in the city, it’s imperative that [tourism is] part of that discussion. I’m very honored to be part of that group,” Matej wrote.

In November 2017, the airport hosted 810,495 total passengers, a 9.3 percent increase from November 2016. It was the “highest level of traffic for any month of November on record,” according to a San Antonio International Airport (SAT) news release.

“For the year to date, traffic at SAT continues to break records with 8,279,312 passengers representing a 5.0% increase compared to this time in 2016. The 9.3% in domestic travel is attributed to the capacity increases and the addition of new routes. Internationally, traffic increased 10.4% with a continued increases in demand for both Toronto, Canada and Mexico markets.”

Airport System Development Committee Members:

· Chair: John Dickson, Principal, The Denim Group (Technology Industry)

· John Agather, Broker, KW Realty (Aviation field)

· Jorge Canavati, Principal, J. Canavati & Co. (Air Logistics/Cargo)

· Brian Conklin, SVP of Gov’t/Industry, USAA (Industry representative)

· Dirk Elmendorf, Co-Founder, Rackspace (Industry representative)

· Mark Fessler, President, Millionair–SA (General Aviation/FBO)

· Marina Gavito, Innovation Team, USAA (Community representative)

· Mike Gibbs, SVP-Gen. Counsel, Whataburger (Industry representative)

· Paula Gold-Williams, CEO, CPS Energy (Energy Industry)

· Lt. Gen. Russ Handy (USAF Ret.), Director, Aviation Department (Airport Director)

· Harvey Howell, President, H.H. Howell, Inc. (County-appointed representative)

· Raul Lomeli, Chairman, Saber Es Poder (Community representative)

· Kim Lubel, Corp. Board Member, Various Entities (Industry representative)

· Casandra Matej,President and CEO, Visit San Antonio (Visitor/Tourism industry)

· Gabriele Niederauer, PhD, CEO and President, Blue Grass Vascular (Bioscience Industry)

· Jim Perschbach, EVP-Bus. Devel., Port San Antonio (Port San Antonio representative)

· Todd Piland, Exec. Vice President, H-E-B (Industry representative)

· Gen. Edward Rice (USAF ret.), former commander, USAF-AETC (Military representative)

· Maj. Gen. Angie Salinas (USMC ret.), CEO, Girl Scouts of SWTX (Community representative)

· Rosa Santana, Founder/CEO, Santana Group (Industry representative)

· Randy Smith, President, Weston Urban (Regional city representative)

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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