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Relax, San Antonio airport is just fine

December 17, 2016

The first time I flew into San Antonio International Airport, it seemed surprisingly small for the nation’s seventh-largest city.

It wasn’t a bad first impression, but much like my first visit to the Alamo, I expected something more. More flights. More people. More terminals. More hustle and bustle! Some kind of tangible, overwhelming, exhausting and frantic expression that this city was the place to be, and I was lucky to be stepping into it (I was).

Instead, the terminal was mostly empty. The airport felt sleepy.

In the years since my first landing here (and long before my arrival from Phoenix), the airport has been a frequent civic scapegoat.

You’ve heard the gripes. It doesn’t have enough direct flights. The runways are too short. It’s landlocked. Former Mayor Henry Cisneros once called it our “Achilles heel.” It pales in comparison to the booming Austin-Bergstrom International Airport just up the road, and civic leaders are now on the hunt for a regional airport of the future.

But first impressions are often wrong, and so is groupthink.

We have a bad case of airport envy, people. Get over it. Sure, there is room for improvement at SAT, but our airport is just fine. It’s not the source of our problems.

From the did-you-know file: Ever so quietly, San Antonio International Airport set a record in 2015 with more than 8.5 million passengers, which surpassed a record in 2014. It will likely set a passenger record in 2016.

Sure, it ranked as the 45th busiest airport in the country in 2015 with a little more than 4 million people boarding planes, according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics. But that puts us ahead of Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio. San Antonio is also just behind San Jose and Sacramento, California, and Kansas City.

All of this struck George Hoffer, a transportation economist at the University of Richmond, as “reasonable” and promising. It’s the right spot for our market.

“You will grow faster” than those Midwest cities, he wrote in an email. “You are somewhat different than a non-hub and #45 ranking in that you have non-stop service to both coasts. A real plus.”

A number of other industry experts have shared the same positive vibes. They love our air service and our potential.

“The reality is your air service is excellent,” Mike Boyd, an aviation consultant in Colorado, told me last year. “When you look at it, San Antonio has access to every single connecting airline hub in America. That’s the name of the game.”

Embracing this means embracing reality, which means accepting that Houston and Dallas are not going anywhere.

Those two markets were home to the fourth and 12th busiest airports in the country last year, with a combined 52 million passengers boarding, according to the FAA. Even the “tiny” airports in these two cities — Dallas Love Field and William P. Hobby — had nearly 13 million additional passengers board flights.

San Antonio is always going to lose direct flights to these markets. It’s a phenomenon called the “traffic shadow effect,” said Janet Bednarek, an aviation historian at the University of Dayton.

It’s not really rocket science. If a market is close enough to a “hub airport,” where major airlines concentrate their flights, it will lose out on traffic. People will either drive to those hubs or airlines will only offer flights that pass through them. Either way, it’s a money decision.

“Too close to a nearby hub, there is just so much traffic that a region can generate,” she said. “The idea that an airport that is so near an established hub getting any kind of secondary hub status, I think, is not terribly realistic in this market.”

But wait, you say, what about Austin? It, too, is near Houston and Dallas, and its air traffic is surging. Bednarek sees a few key differences. It’s the state capital, and home to a tier-one university and a known tech sector.

“Absolute population isn’t the driver,” she said. “Do you have a global industry there? Do you have a university with global connections?”

Not unless you count breakfast tacos.

None of this is to say the airport can’t improve, or we shouldn’t try to add flights. While the airport has been setting passenger records, the growth rate was 1 percent last year, according to FAA stats.

City officials said they are acutely aware of this and hope to boost that growth in coming years. Direct flights to Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., remain a priority. So are nonstops to the West Coast, as well as service to Mexico.

As for the talk of a new regional airport, possibly to the south, to accommodate the next million residents here? Don’t study it. Shelve it.

The airport is only at 65 percent capacity with its two terminals, city officials said. Plans eventually call for a third terminal. While people often complain about the runways being too short and how that crimps flight options, the reality is the airport is capable of serving flights to western Europe and all of Latin America. And, yes, runways could be expanded if we needed to fly to Eastern Europe or Asia. It would be expensive, but so would building a new airport.

Speaking of which, going south to build a new airport, a burgeoning idea, makes no sense.

“Aren’t the higher incomes north?” asked Hoffer, the transportation economist. “Moving to the south makes Austin a relatively more attractive alternative.”

Exactly. Better off focusing on the flights we can get now — hello, Air Canada! — and growing key industries that link to desired markets.

Sit back and relax. The airport is just fine.

jbrodesky@express-news.net