This article has been updated.
Airport officials unveiled a model and renderings of a new San Antonio International Airport terminal Wednesday that City Manager Erik Walsh said “changes the pathway for this region for a very long time.”
Conceptual renderings show a bright and modern airport terminal bigger than the two existing terminals combined, with up to 17 gates, lengthy passenger departure and arrival lanes, spacious waiting areas and club lounges and a lushly landscaped, open-air courtyard.
Just don’t think of it as Terminal C.
“We’re calling it the ‘new terminal,’” Walsh said.
The planned new terminal is the largest piece of the overall 20-year, $2.5 billion airport strategic development plan approved by City Council in November 2021. Pre-construction projects to set the stage for the terminal are set to start in 2024 with a target completion date of 2028.
San Antonio’s airport, while given high ratings by travelers relative to peer facilities, has long been considered unequal to the city’s stature and aspirations. Its nonstop air service options have expanded since the pandemic, but are not as broad as those offered by Austin’s Bergstrom International Airport.
The airport development plan, which also includes improvements to runways, vehicle roadways and other airport facilities, is “the most important project that the city has going forward,” Walsh said. “It’s the most important project that I have.”
The result of several years of planning to upgrade and add capacity to the airport, the project is a long time coming following previous attempts, he added.
“We have not kept up, and everybody knows it,” he said.
The price tag for the new terminal is estimated at between $1 billion and $2 billion, a cost that airport officials said will be paid for with funding from FAA grants, the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill, airport revenue and fees and airport bonds.
The release of renderings developed and presented to City Council by architecture and design firm Corgan, along with Lake Flato Architects, marks a transition in the improvement process from planning to the actual design.
The terminal designs are 15% complete, said Jesus Saenz, the city’s director of airports. The next part of the design process includes environmental studies and obtaining approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
In the meantime, airport officials are negotiating facilities agreements with the airlines that service the San Antonio airport.
More gates, larger waiting area
Road work and other construction projects to prepare the airport for building out the new terminal will start in 2024.
Plans call for an estimated 800,000-square-foot terminal to be built west of Terminal B in an area now used for parking. The two terminals will be connected and a concourse built to connect with Terminal A.
In addition to a central processing area for ticketing and security, expansive waiting areas and concourses are planned.
A ground transportation center also connects to the new terminal with walkway bridges crossing the drop-off lanes. The roadway into passenger drop-off and pickup areas will be reconfigured to direct commercial traffic, such as taxis and rideshares, directly into the ground transportation center, and allow traffic headed for the new terminal to bypass the other two terminals.
To increase revenue at the airport, more space for “remain overnight” parking of aircraft is planned for the grounds and 40,000 square feet of added concession space will be built in the terminal.
The new terminal also will bring the airport’s number of gates to around 40, an increase from the existing 27. Several gates in Terminal B will need to be eliminated for construction of the new terminal.
The federal inspection station for international travelers now located in Terminal A will move to the new terminal and double in size. Three gates for wide-body aircraft, such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 that support flights to international destinations, will be built in the new terminal as well.
Utilizing the current space
A study leading up to the development plan determined that the 2,600 acres of ground space at the airport, landlocked on the North Side, is sufficient for San Antonio’s future growth, said Saenz.
While other airports may have more or less space, size and location is not the determining factor in how well airports function. “It’s how you’re utilizing the space,” he said.
The key is planning for future demand and new technologies amid a turbulent time in the industry.
“As the entire airline [and] airport industry is going through its own transformational or iterative changes that we’re going through — post-COVID pandemic, the number of mergers that are trying to occur — we still have to be very cognizant of that and the volatility that’s still in the market that exists today,” Saenz said.
But managing the cost is also a factor in the design, he said.
“We all want the new shiny object as we want to move forward,” Saenz said. “But we have to be able to pay for that. We have to be able to add additional capacity so airlines can continue to grow and expand the air service here in San Antonio.”
A major source of revenue is the airlines, which also determine the air service and destinations provided at the San Antonio airport.
Taxpayers do not pay for the airport, Walsh said. “It’s users of the airport, whether it’s the airlines or UPS. Every time a plane takes off with an ounce of weight, they pay us and that’s how those agreements are structured, not just here, but everywhere.”
Praise, questions from council members
The mayor and other council members applauded the efforts of Walsh, airport officials and the airport strategic development committee on the terminal plan.
“This project will change the way visitors see our city, the way that we see ourselves,” said Councilwoman Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6).
Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he’s been looking forward to this day for a long time, praising efforts “to transform what has been viewed as an Achilles heel for the city into one I think will be a strength moving forward.”
Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) asked what would be done to bring Terminals A and B up to standards. “Those passengers coming in and out of Terminal A and B may not ever see Terminal C,” he said. Saenz responded that the new terminal will become a central processor connecting to Terminal B. But Terminal A, built in 1984, has nearly reached the end of its life expectancy.
“We feel like we can still get another five to eight years out of that, but after that, it’s a demolition,” Saenz said, adding that would be considered in a second phase of the redevelopment plan.
The amount of space allocated in the plan for concessions troubled Councilman John Courage (D9), given that SAT is an origin-and-destination airport and not a hub. Saenz said that characteristic has been considered, especially when it comes to the flow from gate to baggage claim. “The passenger wants to get in and get out, and they want to take care of their business and move as efficiently as possible,” he said.
The chairman of the airport strategic development committee, John Dickson, said the design plans for the new terminal are something to be proud of after seven years of work.
“I just want to pass on the feeling that I had when I saw these design renderings about a week and a half ago,” he said. “My first thought was it was worth it.”
Local executives who work to attract and retain business in San Antonio are enthusiastic about the much-anticipated plans.
Airport capacity and service is a frequent topic of conversation with site selectors, coming in at only second to workforce quality, said Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, president and CEO of the economic development foundation, Greater:SATX. She plans to broadcast the plans far and wide.
“Everybody within our pipeline today is getting an email with the renderings and with a message that San Antonio is investing big,” she said.
“In San Antonio, we’ve got a lot of well-intentioned and aggressive leaders looking to implement change but you’ve got to have the right people … that understand how to lead projects like this — and implement them.”
The city has that leadership, she said, in Saenz and Tim O’Krongley, deputy director of development for the San Antonio Airport System. “The difference between the plan that we saw in 2010 and this plan … is we’re moving forward to action.”
Katie Harvey, board chairwoman of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, called the plans a “bold move and innovative thinking” that will improve connectivity and enhance the traveler experience for residents and visitors.
This article has been updated to clarify the current location of the federal inspection station for international travelers. It is in Terminal A.