Terminal A. Photo by Scott Ball.
Terminal A at the San Antonio International Airport. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A task force charged with examining the San Antonio International Airport‘s challenges and future needs could look into the viability of privatizing management of the airport.

City Councilman Joe Krier (D9), who has been an advocate for expanding the airport and improving San Antonio’s air travel capacity, said Thursday that privatization is just one of many things that the task force could consider to help the airport and its operations better adapt to the city’s growth and to the evolving needs of travelers.

Along with privatization, the panel will examine other options to address the rising concern that, despite another record-breaking year in passenger traffic, San Antonio faces stiff competition from Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, which has dozens more non-stop flights.

No appointments have been made yet to the airport task force, which was created last November by Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, but it will include business leaders and representatives of the local travel and hospitality industries.

“This blue ribbon panel will take a look at whether private management is a good thing or a bad thing,” Krier said. “I don’t know the answer to that question, but it is something we should look at.”

Krier said no formal talks have taken place. No consultants have been hired, and there is no time frame on any decision, but he thinks the task force could recommend having a consultant or two examine the “plusses and minuses” of privatization and make suggestions.

“I would hope [the group would] bring in some outside folks,” Krier said.

Taylor could not be reached for comment on Friday, but when speaking to the Rivard Report about the task force’s creation last year, she said the panel would explore a range of options “where nothing is off the table.”

The task force could weigh other solutions to make the airport more competitive, Krier said, including building an entirely new airport or possibly partnering with Austin to build a regional airport, though that seems unlikely, Krier said.

“When we’ve been interested in it, Austin wasn’t,” he said. “When Austin wanted to talk, we weren’t ready.”

City Manager Sheryl Sculley shared Taylor and Krier’s sentiments: “We’re interested in exploring all options that could allow us to make improvements at the San Antonio International Airport, including privatization.”

Sculley noted that the City’s long-term goals include “increasing nonstop air service, providing exceptional customer service, and overseeing capital construction projects that would both expand our air service offerings and improve the overall experience for patrons.”

“It’s an idea,” said Russell Handy, who became the City’s aviation director last December. “You ask yourself, ‘Do you need a new terminal? A new airport?’ Privatization is another one of those options.”

The airport was originally built as a military base on the outskirts of San Antonio’s then-city limits in 1941. In 1953, the City turned it into a commercial airport that now spans more than 2,600 acres with two terminals. It serves 10 domestic and international airlines, and has more than 30 non-stop destination flights.

The City announced on Feb. 20 that the airport saw its seventh straight year-over-year increase in passengers at the end of 2016.

The airport has seen significant construction work in recent years. A combo multi-level consolidated rental car facility and new short-term parking garage is expected to open in stages between later this year and mid-2018.

The City also has upgraded runways and the two airport terminals, along with other enhancements.

But Krier and other local leaders have long called for even more airport improvements to boost the city’s air service connectivity, and to better position San Antonio as a business-friendly destination.

A push for more nonstop flights, including one between San Antonio and Reagan Washington National Airport, has been a top priority.

Mark Fessler, president of the San Antonio office of the Million Air fixed base operator, serves on the city’s Airport Advisory Commission. He said local leaders have rightfully given high priority to the airport system’s future as “our airports are one of the most important assets for economic generation we have as a municipality.”

Other City officials also understand the airport’s role as an economic generator that serves the business community and casual visitors, Krier said.

“A great airport is essential to recruiting and keeping good jobs,” he said, “and it’s essential to a quality hospitality industry.”

According to California-based American Airports Corp., an aviation management firm, more publicly owned airports worldwide are partnering with private operators and managers.

But U.S. airports that are entirely privately managed are rare. Earlier this month, Westchester County in New York hired a consulting firm to help in finding a private operator for its county airport.

Only two other airports in the United States and its territories are privately managed. One is the publicly-owned Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That airport is managed by Aerostar Airport Holdings, a Puerto Rican aviation management firm that also operates several Mexican airports.

Krier said one benefit of privatization could be improved cost and functional efficiency of airport operations. He also pointed to a concern about whether the airport manager would emphasize profits over safety or quality of passenger service.

“When you talk privatization, there are definitely pros and cons,” Krier said.

If privatization is to be realized, it would be a long process that includes petitioning the Federal Aviation Administration for permission to contract with a private operator, Krier and Handy said.

“I don’t think we should take any option off the table,” Handy said.

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Edmond Ortiz

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.