I’ll never forget landing at San Antonio International Airport to interview for an editor’s position at the now-defunct San Antonio Light in 1989, and phoning my wife Monika in New York from my hotel room to tell her that a pack of jackrabbits was nibbling on the tall grasses between runways as we set down.
Could we return to Texas after a decade’s absence living overseas and then in New York, or was San Antonio too provincial? We both loved the nearby Hill Country and the city’s historic and bicultural profile, but the overall small town airport experience left me concerned at the time that the city lacked ambition and global reach.
Needless to say, we decided to leave the New York metro area to return to the state we called home. San Antonio seemed like a good place to set roots and raise our two young boys. We were not wrong there.
Yet the city’s economy and its front door — San Antonio International Airport — did, indeed, prove provincial. The lack of big-city energy, infrastructure and amenities was a comfort for some, but a frustration for many.
Fast forward more than three decades to 2023. Long-overdue plans to make a $2.5 billion investment in redesign and expansion of the city’s airport finally are coming off the drawing board. The change is driven by the kind of big vision that transformed the San Antonio River into one of the country’s great linear parks, and that built the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System, now 100 miles in total with new trails in the planning stage.
I think City Manager Erik Walsh got it right earlier this month when he said the planned new $1 billion airport terminal, set to open in 2028, “changes the pathway for this region for a very long time.” Travelers to and from the city will be moved in and out of the new terminal much more efficiently with construction of a new ground load facility that will open in 2025. Click on the two previous links for Contributing Senior Reporter Shari Biediger’s coverage to read about both projects in far greater detail.
The reimagination of San Antonio’s airport likely will prove to be one of the major accomplishments of Ron Nirenberg’s mayoral legacy. With his election to a fourth and final term a near-certainty this May, Nirenberg will preside over the difficult passage of the first years of construction even as every effort is made to keep the airport experience efficient and comfortable for arriving and departing passengers.
A future mayor will cut the ribbon five years from now if the project stays on schedule. Meanwhile, readers will see and hear a lot more of Jesus Saenz, the city’s director of airports, in the coming years as the city moves from design, winning federal approvals and negotiating contracts with the airlines to actual construction.
I try to avoid the episodic comparisons of San Antonio to Austin, two cities that share geographic proximity and perhaps, one day, a single metropolitan area, but otherwise have very different profiles and identities. But it’s impossible not to wince over how Austin Bergstrom International Airport in recent years has attracted a growing number of San Antonio travelers away from flights here to take advantage of Austin’s greater number of nonstop and international flights, and in many instances, less expensive fares.
Austin’s city and business leaders deserve credit for implementing their airport expansion vision ahead of San Antonio, but the underlying force driving that vision was the city’s rapidly growing economy, tech-heavy jobs base and the need for more flights to more destinations to service Austin’s global business connections and its population’s disposable income for leisure travel.
San Antonio’s leaders will have to keep one eye on a smart redesign and expansion of San Antonio International Airport while recognizing that the key to winning more nonstop flights, more competitive airfares and an ever-growing count of arriving and departing passengers will depend on success in reducing the city’s high levels of poverty.
Attracting more skilled, well-paid young professionals to move here, and building a better-educated workforce will be key to expanding the base of San Antonians who can afford to make good use of that new airport for both business and leisure.
A closing note of gratitude and recognition to San Antonio cybersecurity business leader John Dickson, who chaired the city’s airport strategic development committee. He and his fellow unpaid volunteers worked for four years on the strategic expansion plan, and that work, in my view, proved to be exceptional. Many working committees see their final reports shelved. Not this time. This one should fly.
This column has been updated with new information on the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System’s total mileage.