The travel photos on John Dickson’s phone include shots he took of places like Terminal C in a Houston airport. The album “cool airports” serves as a kind of vision board for what he would like visitors and locals to experience when they land in San Antonio.

“I feel like I’ve seen the future, and that’s the heart of my message to San Antonio,” said Dickson, who travels extensively as a local business leader and serves as chairman of the airport strategic development committee. “I see what goodness looks like in other places, and we can’t get there soon enough.”

On Wednesday, Dickson will join Director of Aviation Jesus Saenz in presenting to City Council what that future looks like for the San Antonio International Airport, according to the 2040 Strategic Development Plan he helped write. The final version of the plan will go before the council on Nov. 18.

If approved, it would kick off the first phase of a project to revamp the airport inside and out at an estimated cost of nearly $1 billion. While the 20-year master plan includes extending a runway and rethinking roadways, what is planned for the gates, concourses, and terminals will make the most immediate difference in how the airport serves the city, Dickson said. 

“[We] are taking a perceived economic development liability and changing it into a perceived economic development asset,” he said, adding that the airport’s ratings and operations are good, despite facilities that are relatively aged and cramped in comparison to airports in other cities. 

“I think it’s safe to say over the last four years that this committee learned a handful of things, and one of them is that how regions compete [for air service] is in the terminal facilities themselves.”

Creating a sense of place

The unveiling of the master plan to improve the airport lured dozens of people to a community room on a recent weeknight for the last of a series of public input sessions that began in 2018.

John Dickson’s “Cool Airports” photo album on his phone.
A screenshot of John Dickson’s “Cool Airports” photo album on his phone. Credit: Courtesy / John Dickson

Airport officials and consultants showed off improvement plans geared toward enhancing safety, accommodating more international flights, increasing the capacity of runways, adding gates, and creating a sense of place for residents and visitors. 

“So as you’re arriving at the airport, you feel and you know you’ve landed in the city of San Antonio, and vice versa,” Saenz said. “As you’re departing our airport facilities, it leaves you with a passion to say, I can’t wait to come back to this airport and to this city.”

“We left a lot on the table when we designed Terminal A in 1984 and Terminal B [in 2010],” Dickson said. “They’re antiseptic.” 

The phasing of the plan is designed around meeting future demand, according to Saenz, even as airport passenger numbers rebound from the pandemic and airlines struggle to reestablish routes and service around the world. 

“We’re not going to go and build it and hope that they will come — that’s not what this approach is about,” Saenz said. 

The San Antonio airport was founded in 1941 on 1,200 acres of open land north of the city limits. Since then, the city has grown to surround it, security screening requirements have changed drastically, and the airport retail and restaurant industry has bourgeoned.

Last year, 1.9 million people boarded a plane at the San Antonio airport, making it 46th among the nation’s commercial airports for enplanements after being 44th during the considerably more normal previous year, with 5 million enplanements. 

By 2040, San Antonio enplanements are projected to reach 7.2 million a year while Bexar County’s population is expected to nearly double in that time, according to state demographers. 

Funding limits

Through its funding mechanisms, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) dictates where airports are built and how they expand, Dickson said. In order to maintain consistency and safety, FAA money for airfield development is matched at a higher rate than for terminals. 

For that reason, local airport officials often fund redevelopment with increases in the cost-per-enplanement paid for by airlines. If airlines agree to the added cost — ostensibly in return for more gates and a more attractive airport — lenders and investors are more likely to get behind the project, Dickson said. 

The goal set by the strategic development committee is to build “a world-class facility within the funding framework and the funding limits that we have,” Dickson said. “We can’t build Singapore [Changi Airport], we can’t build Heathrow [Airport]. But within the confines and restrictions of the economics, we want the best we possibly can get.”

Improvement plans should be designed with one eye to the future, he added. “That’s important because I think things are going to change in the next 15 to 20 years in ways that we can’t even imagine or think of.”

Missed opportunities

A key signal that San Antonio’s airport was holding back economic development came in 2008, when AT&T decided to move its corporate headquarters from San Antonio to Dallas. Company officials cited a lack of direct air connections as a contributing factor in its decision to pull up stakes and head north.

“The decisions that cities make about airports are among the most important that shape the future of a city in today’s world,” said Henry Cisneros, former mayor and U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, who leads the infrastructure investment firm American Triple I. 

“Airports are probably the leading determinant of the economic prospects and overall economic mobility of a city,” he said. “It used to be that people built an airport to serve a city in a convenient way. Now, it’s the airport that determines the extent to which the city can develop because increasingly cities are the pinnacle of economic connections in the world.”

He said in the past, San Antonio officials overlooked chances to make forward-thinking decisions about the airport. 

One of those times came in 2015 with a push to create a joint, regional airport with Austin shortly before that city instead turned the shuttered Bergstrom Air Force base into a thriving airport. “Austin now has the lead airport for this region, and that gap is only going to grow further if we stay on the present course,” Cisneros said.

An earlier opportunity was missed when business leaders pushed to relocate the San Antonio airport to land in the northeastern reaches of the city. 

That concept was studied for over two years, Dickson said, with the committee coming to the conclusion that in addition to no demand for a new or regional airport, the FAA would not have supported it. 

The decision to stay put at North Loop 410 and Highway 281, only nine miles from downtown, was made in 2018 after aviation consultants determined the footprint of the existing San Antonio airport still offers room to grow and match the forecasted demand. 

“We have the square footage to accommodate the needs of the city and the growth of the city well beyond 20 years,” Saenz said. Beyond that, “I dare not try and put a price tag on [building a new airport], but I can tell you, it wouldn’t be in the millions [of dollars]. It would be in the billions, and it wouldn’t be singular, it would be plural.”

Jesus Saenz, director of airports, speaks during a community information session about the San Antonio Airport System’s Strategic Development Plan.
Jesus Saenz, director of airports, speaks during a community information session about the San Antonio Airport System’s Strategic Development Plan. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

At 2,600 acres, there is enough space to extend runways, add gates, and accommodate aircraft for longer flights, according to the consultants’ reports. Renderings show there’s open space available for a large new Terminal C, widening the concourse of Terminal B, and building a parking and ground transportation center. A roadway plan lays out how vehicle traffic could flow better around and through the airport. 

Picking airport ‘winners and losers’

The problem with the San Antonio airport is that it’s never been a policy or planning priority for local government leaders, according to Dickson, which is perhaps why a 2010 strategic development plan was never implemented. 

This plan is different, in that it has the political backing of City Hall, Dickson said, combined with a team of experienced airport administrators at the helm. He said the committee will serve as the “timeline keepers” to make sure it gets done. 

But even the best airport plans are often either the victim or victors of circumstance, said Janet Bednarek, professor at the University of Dayton and the author of numerous books and papers on the history and development of airfields. 

“Particularly since 1978 and deregulation, the airlines essentially pick and choose the winners and losers, where are they going to go, and what is going to be the flight route,” Bednarek said. More flights mean more passengers mean more flights. 

Some cities have benefited from that, such as Chicago and Atlanta, and some have had to scale back, such as St. Louis and Cincinnati. So the idea that a city can build a bigger airport to attract airlines isn’t a certainty because, for airlines, “the airport itself is not the draw — it’s the city” and passenger traffic, she said.

San Antonio can’t compete with Dallas and Houston as major airline hubs and Austin’s greater number of direct flights and lower fares, Bednarek said. Austin-Bergstrom International Airport logged 8.5 million enplanements in 2019, up 10% from the prior year.

“When people have a choice, and there are airports within an hour or so of where they’re flying from, they will go to where the flights are cheapest,” she said. 

Saenz said San Antonio would always compete with Austin to improve air service for the city, but the 20-year master plan is more about giving San Antonio the airport it needs to support future economic and population growth.
Two new concourses are outlined on an illustration board during a community information session about the San Antonio Airport System’s Strategic Development Plan. Credit: Nick Wagner / San Antonio Report

Covering the cost

The proposed new terminal is the costliest element of the plan’s first phase, at between $790 million and $840 million. The total price tag for the first phase, in today’s dollars, is estimated to cost between $880 million and $950 million. If council members approve the plan next month, airport officials will finalize actual costs and present those in 2022, Saenz said.

That’s also when they will begin to develop and issue airport revenue bonds. In addition to funding from FAA grants, infrastructure bill funding, airport revenues, and fees, airport bonds will help cover the costs. 

At what level is yet to be determined, said Michael Garnier, chief financial and budget officer for the airport. Rating agencies Fitch and Moody’s recently revised the credit outlook for the San Antonio airport, moving it and 17 other airports from negative to stable in a sign of confidence in the travel industry. The rating determines the interest rate on bonds, their value, and attractiveness to investors. 

Some of the terminal upgrade work is already underway behind the scenes, said John van Woensel, national aviation planning manager with engineering and planning firm WSP USA, which was hired by the airport. But the major pieces of the plan will be done in phases mapped out to 2040 and adjusted depending on evolving needs and technologies. 

Cisneros said that while he would like to see a plan that views San Antonio and Austin as a metropolis rather than as competitors, he is hopeful that airport development locally will improve the city’s economic prospects overall. 

“We need to keep growing because we have this economic inequality in the city [and] the only way we’re going to solve that is more jobs, more companies, more opportunity, more economic mobility,” he said. “And nowadays, that means an airport that’s up to the task.”

Saenz described the plan as one that promises to give San Antonio “the airport it deserves.”

“It’s not just a mediocre approach — quite the contrary,” he said. “It is a grand approach that we’re taking to ensure that we are going to continue to provide the award-winning level of service that we have been known for here in the city of San Antonio.”

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Shari Biediger

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