Signs are set up in the San Antonio International Airport informing passengers to remain socially distant while sitting down. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Eight months since the coronavirus pandemic wiped out nearly all air travel, the most recent passenger statistics available from San Antonio airport officials show more people are choosing to travel by plane. And even more plan to travel during the upcoming holiday season.

Airlines servicing the San Antonio International Airport carried 66 percent fewer passengers in September versus last year. But that was the smallest decrease since April when air travel dropped to near nothing due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The numbers have steadily climbed since then, despite a giant spike in positive COVID-19 cases in mid-July in San Antonio. But they are far below the record-high passenger numbers the airport reported in 2019 and 2018. 

More than 10.3 million passengers flew through the San Antonio airport during 2019, exceeding 2018 levels by nearly 320,000 or 3.2 percent.

“We have had some great years leading up to this year,” said Brian Pratte, chief air services development officer for the San Antonio Aviation Department, speaking to members of the Airport Advisory Commission on Tuesday. 

“But you certainly can’t compare the COVID situation … to anything in the past. You can’t compare it to 9/11. You can’t compare it to the economic collapse. You can’t compare it to anything.”

Yet the data shows San Antonio is now averaging three to six points greater passenger volume above the national average, he said. The recent and gradual growth in passenger volume indicates San Antonio is resilient, Pratte said. “We’re seeing more and more people coming through.” 

And while passenger counts for October were much lower than the same month the previous year, down 62 percent, that’s partly because October was once a busy convention travel season, driving up annual passenger counts overall, Pratte said. 

In October 2019, the passenger count was up 4 percent over the previous year despite a worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max following two crashes. Dozens of the passenger jets have been gathering dust outside Boeing’s manufacturing plant at Port San Antonio. Though the 20-month grounding came to an end Tuesday when the Federal Aviation Administration lifted the ban, it’s not yet known how soon airlines will put them in the rotation again. 

As the peak holiday travel season approaches, airport officials are closely monitoring passenger volumes which are trending up, said Jesus Saenz, director of airports. 

So far this month, San Antonio passenger volumes have been hovering around 40 percent less than last year, meaning for every 100 passengers who traveled in November last year, 35 to 40 are flying this month, he said. 

“We expect during the Thanksgiving holiday, based on some of the passenger volumes, that we’re going to increase by approximately 10 percent so we should get closer to that 50 percent level, if not higher,” Saenz said. 

Nationwide, the travel organization AAA is anticipating at least a 10 percent drop in holiday travel – the largest one-year decrease since the Great Recession in 2008. Last year, more than 55 million people traveled for Thanksgiving.

Since the pandemic began, a COVID-19 task force made up of San Antonio airport officials has been working to raise consumer confidence in the safety of air travel by instituting sanitizing protocols and taking other precautionary measures, including a face mask requirement. 

In September, the San Antonio airport became the first in the world to purchase and employ the Xenex LightStrike robot – an ultraviolet (UV) room disinfection technology that deactivates the virus that causes COVID-19. 

“I wish we’d hear about the robot every day because not every airport invested the resources that San Antonio did to have that dadgum robot going around in the middle of the night disinfecting stuff while we’re all asleep,” said Mark Fessler, chairman of the Airport Advisory Commission.

Though most airlines for months have required passengers to wear face masks and kept middle seats open for social distancing, some such as Southwest Airlines plan to sell the middle seats again starting next month.

While Gov. Greg Abbott in May ended air travel restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, 20 other states impose quarantine requirements on travelers from other places and 10 other states have some restrictions in place, according to the travel site Kayak. 

But as coronavirus cases in the U.S. appear to be on the rise again, air travelers may have justifiable reason for concern.

Since the pandemic began in March, more than 2,800 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees working in airports across the country have tested positive for COVID-19, and eight have died, according to the agency. Most of the infected workers were TSA screeners who are in close contact with travelers. 

TSA currently has more than 500 employees with active COVID-19 infections, according to agency data, which is a 50 percent jump in less than two weeks. At the San Antonio airport, 17 screeners have tested positive, with Nov. 1 recorded as their last day at work.

If you are planning to travel, keep in mind that TSA currently allows one liquid hand sanitizer container, up to 12 ounces, per passenger in carry-on bags. Passengers must remove the bottle from their bag before screening. Other liquids, gels, and aerosols must meet the 3-1-1 ounces rule.

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.