What’s the plan for the San Antonio airport? KSAT Explains

‘The 7th largest city in the country is starting to act its size.’ And size has everything to do with it.

SAN ANTONIO – A third terminal is planned for San Antonio International Airport.

It will have the capacity for 17 more gates and will be situated next to the existing Terminal B on the northwest end of the airport’s current footprint.

“The size of it would be approximately 850,000 square feet, which is actually more than the Terminal A and Terminal B we currently have combined,” said Tim O’Krongley, deputy aviation director for the City of San Antonio.

And, no, O’Krongley said it’s not a given that the new third terminal will be named Terminal C.

While the new terminal is the biggest part of the future airport plans, a new Ground Transportation Center and Ground Loading Facility are also among the other projects planned.

But this is not just about more passengers and more planes.

“Anybody that’s been in San Antonio for the last 30 to 40 years has been privy to the debate about where our airport should be,” said San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg.

A committee put together by Nirenberg examined over roughly 18 months whether the airport needed to move from its location at Highway 281 and Loop 410 to accommodate growth.

The answer that the committee came up with was simple: no.

“Think about any major city in the United States where their airport is located,” said Nirenberg. “Very few of them do you fly actually into the heart of the city, and your location is convenient.”

Convenient, yes, but also landlocked in a city that’s aiming to attract more, not less.

That means trying to get more business, higher education, and, in turn, higher-paying jobs.

The airport and the economy: a chicken and egg scenario?

For years, the San Antonio airport has had a, shall we say, lackluster reputation for a city our size.

Is it the local economy that can’t support a more robust airport? Or is it an uninspired airport that can’t support the local economy?

“Well, it’s a little bit of a chicken and egg conversation,” said Nirenberg.

In many industries in 2023, it’s not “work from home” but rather “work from anywhere.”

“Think about USAA. They have offices all over the world. They need connectivity to their office in Charlotte, their office in Phoenix or their office in London,” said Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, CEO of GreaterSATX. “If they want to grow here, they need to be able to connect to satellite offices.”

The mission of GreaterSATX is to bolster the economy by helping companies in San Antonio grow here and stay here while also recruiting new companies to the Alamo City.

“The airport is directly related to propelling our economic trajectory,” said Saucedo-Herrera. “We know we need greater nonstop connectivity, and we need capacity.”

A lack of nonstop flights has been a knock on San Antonio International Airport for years, whether you’re traveling for business or pleasure.

The new terminal is a way to get those flights, according to those behind the project.

Where to, exactly?

“San Antonio is the largest city in the country without transatlantic service, and we are aiming to change that,” Saucedo-Herrera said.

Here’s a list of locations where the city and its partners, like GreaterSATX, hope to secure more direct routes:

  • London
  • Frankfurt, Germany
  • Toronto
  • Queretaro, Mexico
  • Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina
  • Boston
  • Chicago
  • Bay Area of California
  • Washington, D.C., specifically DCA

But building it doesn’t mean those flights will come.

“It is a very delicate dance that we do with the airlines because, ultimately, it’s the airlines themselves that pay for these facilities through the fees that they pay when they take off and land from San Antonio International,” Nirenberg said.

Construction on the new terminal is scheduled to start in 2024, with liftoff for the new terminal set for 2028.

The effort to get those flights, however, has already begun.

“Let’s not just wait for airlines to come to us,” Saucedo-Herrera said. “We are having these conversations where we are telling the San Antonio story with the airport and with Visit San Antonio. And we’re in active conversations, specifically not just about gate capacity but about nonstop routes.”

The Perimeter Rule

Getting a direct flight to DCA, or Reagan National Airport, in Washington, D.C., has been a longtime challenge for San Antonio because of the Perimeter Rule, which dates back to 1966.

It restricts nonstop flights to DCA to within 1,250 miles of that airport.

San Antonio is 1,600 miles away.

“That’s the only site that it literally takes an act of Congress to create,” said Nirenberg.

Houston and Dallas are within that perimeter and have direct flights to Reagan National.

An exception was made for Austin, so it has a nonstop into DCA.

But not Military City USA.

“Think about NSA being here and the Air Force’s cybersecurity headquarters being here in San Antonio,” said Saucedo-Herrera. “Aviation, manufacturing, all of the different federal contractors.”

San Antonio is also home to roughly 80,000 active-duty military personnel.

GreaterSATX is part of the Capital Access Alliance. Along with numerous other organizations and companies, they are trying to push Congress to change the perimeter rule.

Don’t expect the new to look like the old

The new ground loading terminal at SAT will require passengers to walk outside to board the plane from the ground.

“The only difference is instead of walking through a jet bridge, you load on the ground through a set of stairs. It can be faster,” said O’Krongley. “And there are certain carriers, ultra-low-cost carriers, that like that model.”

O’Krongley says passengers can board faster that way by using both the front and back of the plane.

The new ground transportation center will be a separate building located across from the new terminal, which is where passengers will go to catch rides with Uber, Lyft, a taxi or a bus.

The design of the projects also aims to include some San Antonio signatures, like limestone and waterways.

“A lot of times airports, you know, the curb, you go straight into the building. We’re going to build a paseo,” O’Krongley said. “Think of it as kind of a dry creek, if you will, with some natural features that will be offset from the building to the curb. That way, you get to introduce plants, wildlife, bridge effects.”

There will also be an outdoor courtyard for passengers to utilize once they get past security.

The $2.5 billion project will be paid for through airline fees and federal grants, Nirenberg said.

Asked what happens if we don’t get those grants, he said, “We won’t lose out on the money.”

Through this project, the partnership between the airport and the economy is one the city hopes will take off.

“There’s not a site anywhere in the world once this is all developed that we won’t be able to reach,” Nirenberg said.

“The 7th largest city in the country is starting to act its size,” said Saucedo-Herrera.

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About the Authors:

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

Valerie Gomez is lead video editor and graphic artist for KSAT Explains. She began her career in 2014 and has been with KSAT since 2017. She helped create KSAT’s first digital-only newscast in 2018, and her work on KSAT Explains and various specials have earned her a Gracie Award from the Alliance for Women in Media and multiple Emmy nominations.