City Manager Sheryl Sculley Ames handsome with Aviation Director Russ Handy following 30 straight record months for the San Antonio International Airport.
City Manager Sheryl Sculley (center) shakes hands with Aviation Director Russ Handy in celebration of 30 record months at San Antonio International Airport. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The San Antonio International Airport doesn’t get any respect. It’s often the first urban defect cited by locals making unfavorable comparisons with Austin and other regional cities.

The British Airways nonstop from Austin to London is the one flight that most distinguishes our neighbor’s air service, but travelers from San Antonio say they also find less expensive options by flying out of Austin to various domestic destinations.

The comparisons matter, and the City’s aviation managers need to be given the tools and incentives necessary to convince airlines to offer more competitive pricing here. But the criticism also obscures an important point: San Antonio’s airport and the services it offers are good and getting better.

A map shows all the current North American destination cities with nonstop flights from San Antonio, along with a 54th destination, Portland, Oregon, that’s expected in June. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio Aviation Department

Last week’s announcement that San Antonio air traffic surpassed 10 million passengers in 2018, with more airlines operating here and more nonstop flights available to different destinations than at any time in the last 14 years, represents one of the many accomplishments realized in City Manager Sheryl Sculley’s 13 years of service.

It’s worth noting because many city residents and airport users are probably unaware that the City’s Aviation Department, which manages the airport, is just one of many departments reporting to Sculley and her team of deputies and assistants. Its visible improvements make for one more accomplishment she can claim as she nears retirement.

When Sculley arrived here in 2005, the City’s underperforming Aviation Department was just one of many challenges she inherited. Since then, passenger traffic has grown by more than 35 percent, from 7 million to 10-plus million, and the number of destination cities reached by nonstop flights has grown from 32 to 53.

Marketing a regional airport that operates in the shadows of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Houston Intercontinental Airport is a major challenge. Airlines care only about “butts in seats,” the number of business and leisure travelers who can afford to travel and do so regularly. No amount of promotion or civic pride can change that.

The number of airport users depends, in part, on a city’s population, and San Antonio’s continuing growth and projected growth favor expanded airport service. But an airport’s traffic also depends on a city’s economy, the disposable income of individuals, and the prosperity of businesses. That’s why Austin-Bergstrom serves more than 14 million passengers versus 10 million flying to and from San Antonio International. Our population is greater, but the per capita income is higher in Austin.

The good news in San Antonio is that the current Aviation Department team, led by Director Russell Handy, and his deputy, Thomas Bartlett, is the strongest ever assembled, in my opinion. Together they’ve overseen substantial infrastructure improvements, added considerable amenities and public artworks, attracted new airlines to operate here, and expanded the number of nonstop destinations.

Long-term expansion of the airport to increase capacity to meet demand over the next 50 years is now in the early planning stages. That will be an expensive, multiyear project, one that could necessitate the acquisition of more than 200 acres of adjacent industrial and commercial land to accommodate runway and hangar expansion.

The San Antonio International Airport
The San Antonio International Airport. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Adding a fast, comfortable, and low-cost transit option connecting the airport to downtown and, perhaps, Northwest San Antonio, would further enhance the visitor experience.

I share many readers’ skepticism of a finding by the ConnectSA leadership that technology has rendered rail service a last-century option. Many readers who support expanded mass transit want the current generation of city leaders to persuade voters to invest in rail. I share that wish, but I don’t believe anyone can sell it to San Antonio voters. Rail isn’t obsolete, in my view, but it is politically impractical and any effort to ad rail that fails at the polls would set back mass transit expansion in general.

A growing economy generating smart job creation is the real key to building a city with better air and ground transportation options. Austin is the state capital and will continue to grow faster, but San Antonio can thrive on its own terms and remain a more affordable and livable city. Steady, sustained growth has been and should continue to be San Antonio’s mantra.

This viewpoint will attract those who disagree and who will continue to measure San Antonio against Austin and cite the gap as reason for expecting more.

I’d point to what was achieved during Sculley’s years as city manager and wish for a continuation of that growth under Erik Walsh, the lone finalist set to follow Sculley in the job.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.