San Antonio International Airport leadership is prioritizing the addition of new gates as the municipally owned facility expects to double its pre-pandemic passenger count by 2040. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

A new terminal is on the horizon for the San Antonio International Airport. 

Airport officials presented to an advisory commission on Tuesday three concepts for how the airport could be expanded to accommodate the city’s future growth and air service needs. 

In 2019, about 10.8 million passengers traveled through the San Antonio airport. While 2020 saw those numbers drop by half due to the coronavirus pandemic, officials project the number of passengers will double to 20 million annually by 2040.

As part of the airport’s long-term strategic planning process, officials have developed several capital improvement projects that would support increased air service and passenger demand. 

The strategic plan includes proposals for improving not only the airfield and runways but also roadways entering the airport property. 

But building greater terminal capacity by increasing the number of gates, widening the concourses, and centralizing security so passengers can move more freely through the terminals is a priority. 

“Just based on our gate availability, we’ve got to get some more gates in as quick as possible,” said Jesus Saenz, director of San Antonio airports. “So we are working towards that because we do feel post-COVID, there will be a large amount of pent-up demand. We want to be ready for that demand and ensure that we have the capacity available to meet that.”

A community survey about the future needs of the airport revealed San Antonio residents want improved terminals, commenting more than 700 times about the quality and size of the terminals, and concessions in the concourses, said David Robbins, chief development officer for the San Antonio International Airport. 

One wrote: “Rebuild modern 21st-century terminals for San Antonio to rival the top airports of the world.”

The airport’s Terminal 1 – now known as Terminal A – opened in 1984. In 2010, the 40-year-old Terminal 2 was demolished to make way for a new Terminal B with eight passenger loading gates. The price tag for the eight-gate Terminal B project came to $142 million.

A study completed in 2017 by engineering consultants RS&H put the cost of a new airport terminal with 26 gates at over $1.1 billion.

The strategic plan Robbins presented aims to double the total terminal space at the airport – from 600,000 square feet to 1.2 million square feet – by creating a central terminal complex and expanding the existing terminals. 

A study completed in 2018 determined the San Antonio airport terminals are 13% too narrow, according to standards set for both domestic and international travel. 

The Terminal A concourse is 77 feet wide and its systems are obsolete, Robbins said. Terminal B’s concourse is 101 feet wide. Plans show the concourses expanding to 110 feet and 140 feet wide. 

Other improvements to the terminals include upgrading the baggage handling systems, which are outdated and undersized, and creating more concession space, which would generate greater revenue. 

Robbins said a significant problem area for the airport and passengers are the separate Transportation Safety Administration screening areas for Terminals A and B. Passengers can’t move between the two terminals without first passing through the checkpoints. 

All three terminal options under consideration show an increase in the number of gates from its current 23. Projections show that by 2040, another 12 gates will be needed to support future air service as the city grows. The three options provide 37 narrow-body gates or 32 narrow-body plus three wide-body gates (for international flights).

 The first option airport officials are considering is to build a third terminal – Terminal C – with the added gates. The upfront costs for this option are lower than the other plans being considered and create the shortest walking distances for both arrival and departure points, Robbins said. 

But a third stand-alone terminal would not decentralize the facility. 

“It is like we’re running three different airports, creating a number of inefficiencies,” Robbins said. “Terminal A and B would  only be renovated and activity between all three terminals would still be absent in this option.”

Alternative 1 proposes the addition of a third stand-alone terminal at the San Antonio International Airport. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The second option airport officials are considering satisfies the need for additional gates and provides a central processing space and new concourse. Passengers could walk freely between concourses, which also would have more amenities. 

“The difficulty with this alternative is complex phasing with the existing Terminal B and limited connectivity,” Robbins said. 

Alternative 2 proposes a central processing space and new concourse. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

A third option supports gating requirements, creates a central processing space, adds both more concessions and all-new gates, and allows free movement between concourses. However, this plan is more costly and complex to implement, Robbins said.

Alternative 3 proposes centralized processing and free movement between all concourses. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

The airport system development committee is currently studying the financial feasibility of each option and working on a funding plan and implementation strategy. A planning timeline Robbins presented shows those topics being presented to the City Council’s transportation committee in late summer and to City Council in early fall. 

Additional workshops for public comment are scheduled for September.

Airport officials also presented to the commission an airfield improvement plan intended to improve safety on the runways, enable service to more international destinations, and prepare for the long-term growth of the airport. 

The goals of two roadway improvement options under study are reducing congestion, accommodating projected growth, and creating an airport entrance gateway, Robbins said. 

It’s too early to know what part of the overall plan will come first and what it will cost, said Saenz, who started in the position of aviation director a year ago, just before the pandemic began. 

“We’re still vetting this plan out with some of our internal stakeholders and our airlines so we want to communicate with them as well as we get down this process.” 

In August, Saenz reported that last year’s worldwide pandemic freeze on air travel resulted in revenue losses totaling $33 million for the San Antonio airport. Airlines cut schedules across the board, including 10 direct flights from SAT. Airport officials instituted cost-saving measures and paused both the strategic planning process and talk of expanding terminals. 

Now that planning is back on track, Saenz said one goal of the strategic plan is to ensure that airlines want to operate in San Antonio. 

“We have to have gate availability, and then we have to have the amenities that go along with that,” he said. “So all of that will be included as we start to program out these facilities and ensure that we build out the complex that we want.”

Shari Biediger has been covering business and development for the San Antonio Report since 2017. A graduate of St. Mary’s University, she has worked in the corporate and nonprofit worlds in San Antonio...