My years of commuting from San Antonio to Philadelphia to visit my declining parents came to an end last week with the death of my mother at age 88, so enfeebled by Alzheimer’s that she never knew my 90-year-old father died last year, or recognized any of her five sons and daughters when one of us visited.
I prepared to book flights back for services last week, only to discover the U.S. Air/American Airlines nonstop flight from San Antonio to Philadelphia had been discontinued. My most recent visits to Philadelphia came in conjunction with trips to New York or Washington, so I am guessing the nonstop flight was quietly canceled when the merger was completed in 2015.
In the end, family members agreed to hold a memorial service later in San Antonio. Yet the city’s struggle to add and maintain nonstop air service to other major U.S. cities, and to protect its various nonstop flights to Mexico’s leading cities, is a growing concern. Of late, it’s been discussed more in the media than by the City’s elected leaders, but it’s a real problem that’s front-of-mind for some of our most civic-minded business leaders.
Three former San Antonio mayors recently appeared together on stage at the Pearl Stable to discuss the city’s historic and contemporary relationship with Mexico at a luncheon sponsored by the Asociación de Empresarios Mexicanos (AEM) and the Association for Corporate Growth (ACG).
Trade has remained remarkably robust between Texas and Mexico, but the city’s unique relationship with Mexico grew distant amid the drug violence south of the border and the obsession with border security among statewide officeholders. Now San Antonio and Mexico appear to be entering a new era of closer ties. That could culminate in the visit here by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto or his elected successor for San Antonio’s Tricentennial celebrations in 2018. He would be the first sitting Mexican president to visit San Antonio since President Carlos Salinas de Gortari came here in 1992 to initial the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Yet there was no disagreement from former Mayor Phil Hardberger (2005-09) or former mayor and now Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff (1991-1995) when former Mayor Henry Cisneros (1981-89) cited the city’s 21% decline in passenger traffic to Mexico as a disturbing trend. You can read more about it in this Oct. 14 article posted by Texas Public Radio.
Earlier this year, Southwest Airlines ended nonstop service between San Antonio and Mexico City. Other flights offered or promised to be offered by two of Mexico’s regional, low-cost airlines, Interjet and Transportes Aéreos Regionales (TAR) appear iffy. I searched for flights on Interjet’s nonstop flight between San Antonio and Toluca without any luck on Saturday, and more than one year has gone by since TAR’s nonstop service between San Antonio and Querétaro was reported in the Mexican press. It has yet to happen.
Cisneros lamented the failure of San Antonio and Austin to build a single regional airport in the 1990s when the idea was fervently promoted, most notably by former U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert “McD” McDermott, the longtime leader of insurance giant USAA, who died in 2006.
“I had hoped that we would be talking seriously about a regional airport, but we missed that opportunity when (Austin) built Bergstrom,” Cisneros said. Although a regional airport now seems unlikely, he added that “we need to be talking about the air routes question, because … our airport is one of our Achilles heels for our future.”
Austin-Bergstrom International Airport now has dozens more nonstop flights than San Antonio, including international flights to London, Toronto, and Cancún. Austin matches our other service to Mexico. Cisneros told the Pearl Stable audience that there is even talk of a nonstop flight from Austin to China.
Southwest Airlines’ nonstop flight between San Antonio and Cancún didn’t even last one year, echoing a failed attempt six years ago by Delta to promote such service between San Antonio and the Yucatán.
The City’s map of nonstop flights still shows routes to places like Philadelphia and Cancún.
A second problem besetting city planners is that, on average, flights from Austin to other domestic destinations are 11% less expensive, which is why a growing stream of price-smart San Antonians are driving to Austin to catch flights. Multiply 11% times total airfare cost for a family of four living on a budget and you are talking real money.
That trend only deepens the gap between the two cities’ air traffic trends. The Cheap Flight’s 2016 Airport Affordability Report ranked Austin-Bergstrom the 33rd most affordable airport in the United States, with average domestic tickets at $295. San Antonio was ranked 56th with average domestic tickets at $332.
The relative pricing issue and its underlying reasons merit closer, independent study. The City of San Antonio would be wise to contract with a third-party entity to assess our airport’s strengths and weaknesses yet again in the wake of slowly growing domestic traffic amid steep declines in travel to Mexico.
You don’t need an expensive consultant, however, to know that while some City leaders continue to boast of San Antonio as the seventh largest city, Austin pays little attention to U.S. census rankings as it continues to build a far more dynamic smart jobs economy and markets its strengths to the outside world. People who live in Austin have more disposable income, and there are more people drawn to the city’s hip, festival-heavy culture.
Farther down I-35, in the city with more pressing poverty and education challenges, residents have less money to travel, and a long-entrenched marketing philosophy that sells family friendly tourism above all else, seems to many outsiders like a less interesting destination.