By: W. Scott Bailey | From: San Antonio Business Journal

San Antonio International Airport has been on a hot streak for months, breaking one passenger record after another while landing more domestic and international nonstop flights.

Those wins come in stark contrast to the vibe in Austin where multiple carriers have delivered big hits to that city’s air service lineup in recent weeks.

In San Antonio, nearly 851,000 passengers moved through the SAT terminals in September as the airport set an all-time high for the month. Year to date, San Antonio International has handled nearly 7.8 million passengers.

That year-to-date total puts the Alamo City ahead of pace for 2019, when its airport set a 12-month record with more than 10 million passengers moving through its gates.

Rather than bunker down after the outbreak of Covid-19 all but emptied airports and planes, San Antonio officials went to work crafting a plan aimed at expanding air service.

“In the middle of the Covid pandemic, we established a very clear and purposeful strategic plan for how we were going to operate on the post side of the pandemic," Jesus Saenz, director of airports for the San Antonio Airport System, told me.

It included a plan for recapturing flights and expanding service to and from the nation’s seventh largest city as some airports were simply trying to hang on. And those efforts are paying dividends.

“We have a very specific and intentional air service development plan that we have put into play,” he said.

Those efforts are paying off. Several airlines added seat capacity to and from SAT in September, topping what they offered during the same period in 2019, prior to the pandemic. The airlines with the largest increases in service included Aeromexico, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and Volaris. 

San Antonio has added some new carriers too, including JetBlue Airways, Spirit Airlines and VivaAerobus, since the pandemic.

In late September, I reported that German airline Condor plans to launch nonstop flights from San Antonio and Frankfurt beginning next spring. That win represents the first European flights for SAT.

Since then, Spirit has unveiled plans to begin nonstop service from SAT to Newark in April. And Viva Aerobus has confirmed plans to add nonstop flights to more destinations in Mexico.

Late last month, local airport officials confirmed that Southwest Airlines was adding new nonstop flights from San Antonio to Burbank, California.

Saenz said San Antonio International is drawing customers from a 150-mile radius that are tapping into that expanded service. It’s an area that includes the San Antonio-Austin megaregion.

SAT has benefited from some of the early phases of its planned $2.5 billion airport expansion and improvements plan, including the addition of three more airline gates.

“We're thinking long term to ensure that we have the capacity,” Saenz said.

Meanwhile, American Airlines Group Inc. (Nasdaq: AAL), Austin’s second-busiest passenger airline, recently submitted scheduling changes indicating that the carrier plans to cut flights from 21 of the 46 destinations it serves via the Capital City in 2024. That’s according to a Nov. 4 report from the Austin Business Journal, an affiliated publication, which noted that local airport officials had confirmed the cuts.

The American Airlines setback follows Virgin Airlines’ recent decision to end nonstop service from Austin to London due to lack of demand.

An American Airlines official said there is no current schedule change that would impact the carrier’s San Antonio operations.

Brian Pratte, chief air services development officer for San Antonio International, confirmed that local airport officials have been given no indication of any planned cutbacks by American.

“In fact, we recently met with American Airlines, and they are pleased with SAT,” he said.

Austin-Bergstrom has handled significantly more passengers than SAT. In August, the most recent reporting period for the Capital City airport, it attracted nearly 1.8 million passengers, or about 10,000 fewer than in August 2022. Year to date, Bergstrom’s passenger count is north of 14.5 million.

San Antonio International’s expansion efforts could draw more air service and narrow that passenger gap.

“We will continue to execute those initiatives and activities that will help foster growth,” Saenz said.