San Antonio's airport struggles explained: Short runways, lack of travelers and more

San Antonio Express-News

If you’ve flown out of San Antonio International Airport lately, you know that the crowds of passengers are back. In August, 813,000 travelers passed through the city-owned facility, which worked out to 93 percent of the average monthly totals in 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic laid waste to the air travel industry.

But San Antonio International’s resurgence isn’t all good news. It’s highlighting some of the airport’s long-standing inadequacies. Travelers who waited out the worst of the pandemic are finding the number of nonstop flights out of San Antonio is still small compared to Austin-Bergstrom International, which is close enough to siphon off area passengers who really hate connecting flights. And as travelers crowd cattle-like into Terminal A’s concourse, one of the narrowest among big-city airports – well, it’s just as they remember it.

Those are the problems we see up close at the airport. To see the biggest one, we have to step back.

The city that the airport serves is growing – to such an extent that the travel demands of San Antonians will exceed the facility’s capacity in the near future.

In August, 813,000 travelers passed through the city-owned facility, which worked out to 93 percent of the average monthly totals in 2019.

In August, 813,000 travelers passed through the city-owned facility, which worked out to 93 percent of the average monthly totals in 2019.

Edward A. Ornelas, Staff / San Antonio Express-News

Between 2010 and 2020, the metro area grew by more than 400,000 people, an increase of 16 percent. At that pace, airport officials expect annual passenger totals to exceed 14 million by 2040.

That’s why the city of San Antonio is embarking on a 20-year, $2.5 billion expansion and redevelopment of San Antonio International. Approved by City Council nearly a year ago, the master plan calls for the extension of one of the airport’s two main runways, the construction of a new Terminal C and an additional parking garage, and the remaking of Terminal A. The city will pay for the capital project – one of the biggest in San Antonio history – with a mix of federal and state grants, bond revenue and facility charges paid by air travelers and airlines.

TOP FLIGHTS: The most popular flight destinations out of San Antonio

At this point, the airport’s expansion is largely conceptual. Corgan, a Dallas-based architecture and design firm, is currently drafting plans for Terminal C and other airport projects under a contract worth $3.8 million over three years. But Terminal C – the largest project within the master plan – will be under construction in 2024, with its opening planned for 2028.

To understand how big the challenges are that airport officials are trying to overcome, we compare key aspects of San Antonio International’s offerings and operations to peer facilities around the country, including Austin-Bergstrom.

Let’s start with the number of nonstop flights out of San Antonio

Want to fly nonstop from San Antonio to Beijing? Sorry – you literally can’t get there from here. The airport’s runways are too short.

The maximum distance an airplane can fly is determined by the amount of fuel in its tanks. To fly nonstop to, say, Europe or Asia, you need big jets with big fuel tanks. The more fuel you load onto a plane for long international flights, the heavier it becomes, and heavy planes need longer runways in order to get off the ground.

San Antonio’s longest runways measure 8,505 feet – which is about a thousand feet short of accommodating the long-distance commercial airliners capable of reaching premium destinations such as London, Frankfurt or Dubai. However, the airport master plan notes that big jets – the Boeing 757-200 and 767-300/400ER – can fly to Europe from San Antonio’s runways “but with reduced payloads only.”

Of the 40 destinations reachable by nonstop flights out of San Antonio, the farthest are Boston and Seattle, both only 1,500 nautical miles away. 

The San Antonio airport’s master plan notes several commercial jets that are capable of making these non-stop international flights:

  • The Airbus A350-900 seats up to 325 passengers and requires 9,450 feet of runway for takeoff
  • The Boeing 767-200ER needs 10,500 feet of runway for takeoff
  • The Boeing 787-9 requires 13,200 feet for takeoff

But no matter how long your runways are, they need to be configured properly

Extended runways are essential for longer direct flights, but the ability coordinate multiple takeoffs and landings at the same time is also crucial.

Runways are built in relation to prevailing winds, or the direction from which the wind usually blows. And many of the world’s busiest airports provide multiple, parallel runways (the standard in the U.S. is 3,000 feet apart) to allow for simultaneous takeoffs and landings.

San Antonio International Airport (SAT)

In addition to prevailing wind runways, airports like SAT also have crosswind runways that run perpendicular to the primary runways. In the past, this allowed a greater variety of planes to take off and land in a greater variety of weather conditions. SAT has the smallest number of passengers and takeoffs and landings of all airports we looked at.

Portland International Airport (PDX)

Because crosswind runways often butt up against or even cross through primary runways, like at Portland International Airport, both cannot be used at once. This limits the number of takeoffs and landings that can occur in the same time period. Unlike at SAT, in addition to their crosswind runway, PDX has two parallel runways of decent length. That means they are able to operate more planes in a shorter amount of time.

Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA)

Many airports, like ABIA, don't have crosswind runways. Advances in aircraft mean that only the most extreme weather events prohibit commercial crafts from landing, making the crosswind runways a consideration of the past, or at least important only for airports that primarily deal with smaller, less technologically advanced planes. ABIA has fewer runways than SAT, but sees nearly 3.5 million more annual passengers than SAT.

Orlando International Airport (MCO)

Orlando's lack of crosswind runways coupled with its multiple long runways means that it's capable of sustaining more flights with larger planes. MCO had the largest passenger count of airports we examined.

Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT)

Even though Charlotte does have a crosswind runway, it also has three parallel, long runways. CLT had the largest take-off and landing count of airports we examined.

Normally, when runways are due for reconstruction due to age, usage and weathering, Federal Aviation Administration funding is available to help bankroll improvements. However, an assessment of San Antonio International’s crosswind runway concluded that it was no longer required, making the runway ineligible for FAA funding.

Airport officials have not included the construction of additional parallel runways in their 2040 planning horizon.

But runways are just one of the factors holding San Antonio back. You also need demand.

Longer, better configured runways and desirable local attractions – Orlando, Fla., has both. That’s why its airport has 124 percent more takeoffs and landings than San Antonio. The Orlando airport has four runways 9,000 feet long or longer, which gives airlines the flexibility to fly just about anywhere in the world. As far as attractions, take your pick: Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld or the Kennedy Space Center.

The Orlando airport offers 204 direct flights, the most of any facility we looked at. Orlando also sees the most annual passengers.

Charlotte is a national center of banking and finance and home to the headquarters of nine Fortune 500 companies, including Bank of America and Lowes. The Charlotte airport had the largest number of flights among the airports we looked at. The enduring strength of the U.S. financial-services industry goes a long way in explaining why Charlotte saw the smallest drop in passenger counts from pre-COVID levels. In other words: business travelers.

Area residents’ financial wherewithal – their ability to pay for plane tickets to vacations destinations or to visit family – is another big factor in how many flights an airport will offer. Apart from Orlando, home to many lower-wage workers in the service industry, including tourism, San Antonio has the lowest median income of the metro areas we analyzed.