Timeline for $ 2 billion San Antonio International Airport renovation accelerates

San Antonio International Airport doesn’t make a big impression on visitors.

Terminal A, the larger of the airport complex’s two arrival and departure facilities, is cramped and outdated. And not much about it tells travelers that they have arrived in the seventh largest city in the country.

San Antonio airport officials are working to make a better first impression with a plan that includes building a C Terminal and new parking lot, creating a single security checkpoint, and replacing Terminal A. They also plan to imbue the airport with a San Antonio atmosphere.

The redesign of San Antonio International could happen quickly.


“Our goal is for construction to begin within the next 3-5 years and completion of Phase I to be completed within the next 6-8 years,” said city aviation director Jesus Saenz Jr. ., in an e-mail to the Express. New. “We are planning for the future of the community and the future of the airport.

Still, he said airport officials must undertake “advanced programming and planning before they can confidently share a schedule.”

City council members and city staff so far appear to agree with the plan, which could cost more than $ 2 billion. The cost would be covered by passenger fees on tickets, airline and concession rents, and federal grants.

The proposal is expected to be presented to city council on November 10, with council due to vote on it by the end of the year.

Prior to that, plans for a new terminal will be made public on October 19 during an in-person meeting at the Jewish Community Center, followed by a virtual meeting on October 21.

On the fast lane

The Airport System Development Committee, its 21 members appointed by Mayor Ron Nirenberg, began work on the airport remake in 2018.

The construction schedule that Saenz outlined in his email statement is much more aggressive than originally expected. In the first phase of the planning effort, projections for growth in passenger numbers put Terminal C on line for opening in 2038.

It’s unclear why airport officials are now looking to speed up the schedule.

What is clearer is the fact that the pandemic has upset the projections at the airport.

In 2019, before the COVID-19 epidemic, more than 10 million travelers passed through San Antonio International. Passenger numbers plummeted last year as people largely stayed at home and avoided air travel.

From January to August, even as more and more passengers resumed flying from San Antonio, the number of travelers departing from the airport fell by more than 34% compared to 2019.

Prior to COVID-19, airport officials had estimated that the number of departing passengers would increase by 2% per year, making new gates necessary by 2038. They have not released updated estimates. day of the passengers, and it is not known when they will.

One explanation for the terminal’s fast lane is that municipal authorities’ desire for a new airport goes beyond passenger numbers.

Nirenberg has made it clear that he wants a new terminal complex as soon as possible to make San Antonio International more attractive to travelers – to improve their “customer experience”. The ultimate goal is to add more non-stop flights from San Antonio, which could help boost economic development and boost tourism.

At least that’s hope.

Outmoded

Officials recognize that Terminal A, which opened in 1984, is in need of an overhaul. Its hallways are narrow, seating is inadequate, there are too few restrooms, and a lack of space for more restaurants and shops.

The city has spent more than $ 35 million in recent years updating plumbing and heating systems and other renovations just to keep the terminal running.

“The airport is the first thing people see when they fly into San Antonio,” said Councilor John Courage, whose District 9 includes part of the airport. “We want to create the feeling when people come here: ‘It’s a beautiful airport, it was a big city. We really had a great time here.

Saenz also wants to leave his mark on San Antonio. He began his job as head of the airport in early February 2020, leaving the position of COO at the Houston Airport System.

On September 14, he offered city council a preview of the airport plan. He showed board members a sketch of a new Terminal C – as well as a new Terminal A.

Terminal B, which opened in 2010 and operates 10 of the airport’s 23 gates, would remain open as part of the plan.

The city has long been considering a C terminal. Authorities seriously considered it in 2008, but abandoned the project following the global financial crisis.

Saenz said the new master plan calls for an extension to 32 doors from the current 23. But it’s not clear if the new doors would all be in Terminal C.

“When we launch the new terminal C concourse, is it five, 10, 12, 15, 17 gates? TBD, ”Saenz said at the board meeting.

Questions about costs

The overall cost of the planned remake is also unknown, but it would be heavy. A 2017 consultant report commissioned by the airport estimated the price of Terminal C at around $ 1.5 billion.

The plan presented by Saenz also includes renovations to the main ticketing area, including the addition of a central clearance area for the Transportation Security Administration. Currently both terminals A and B have TSA checkpoints.

Also in the pipeline: a new car park with around 1,500 vehicle spaces in addition to the two current garages.

City Councilor Clayton Perry, whose District 10 also covers part of the airport, said he liked the idea of ​​a central security clearance zone.

“Right now the airport is in disarray,” he said. Passengers are limited to Terminal A or B; with a central checkpoint, they would have options to eat or shop before boarding their planes.

City manager Erik Walsh said in a statement that no taxpayer funds would be used for the project. The debt would be repaid through airport operations, that is, fees on passenger tickets and fees paid by airlines and concessionaires.

But if passengers don’t show up in numbers expected by the airport, it could mean less revenue than expected.

The problem with forecasting future passenger growth is that they are difficult to achieve, said Austin Horowitz, senior aviation consultant at consulting firm ICF.

“The forecasts are always wrong,” he said.

A lack of anticipated income could cause problems for San Antonio, he said. On the other hand, if the city underestimates demand, there won’t be enough doors to accommodate those who want to fly.

Security measures

San Antonio International’s master plan is not just about more modern terminals. It also includes runway safety measures and runway extensions to allow larger planes to travel overseas.

A Jan. 24, 2018, Federal Aviation Administration memo to pilots, which was reviewed by Express-News, revealed that San Antonio International had a potentially serious safety issue.

The airport’s main runway intersects with a secondary runway, resulting in more than 200 so-called “runway incursions” from the early 2000s to early 2021. An incursion is when an aircraft is on the ground. wrong runway – the same runway that is scheduled for another aircraft to land or take off.

In almost all cases, the air traffic controllers had time to order the wrong pilot to leave the wrong runway before there was a serious danger. But the FAA was worried enough to issue the memo warning pilots of intersecting runways.

FAA logs show an incident – on February 15, 2018 – in which two planes could have collided. A Frontier A-319 airliner taxiing on the airport’s main runway had to take evasive action to avoid a cargo plane that had mistakenly moved on the same runway.

The FAA report says the A-319 pilot turned to the left and accelerated his ascent early to avoid crashing into the cargo plane, which was on the same runway. The two planes came within 150 feet of each other, the report noted.

The FAA declared the incident a Category B incursion, “an incident in which the separation decreases and there is a significant potential for collision.”

Saenz has not publicly discussed the incident, which took place before he became the city’s director of aviation. But he told city council last month that the final master plan called for removing the “hot spot” from traffic.

“We want to make sure that we satisfy the issues we had with the hot spot in the corner of the perpendicular tracks,” Saenz said.

He didn’t say when it would be done.

The master plan also calls for the extension of the main runway from 8,500 feet to approximately 10,000 feet to accommodate larger planes, which could eventually pave the way for flights from San Antonio to Central Europe and America. South.

City officials hope to secure a grant from the FAA to cover part of the cost of extending the runway, which is expected to cost at least $ 500,000.

San Antonio does not currently have international flights outside of Mexico, but getting more international flights remains a priority for airport officials and city business leaders.

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