On a mission
Airport director, Jesus Saenz, tells Joe Bates why he believes that it is only a matter of time before growth is back on the agenda at San Antonio International Airport.
With such a strong military presence all around it, it should come as no surprise to learn that San Antonio International Airport (SAT) is determined to play a key role in Texas’ fight back against COVD-19.
The airport – whose neighbours include four military bases housing 80,000 active-duty personnel – was quick to respond to the pandemic, forming its own Covid-19 Task Force and introducing a number of measures to help safeguard the health and wellbeing of passengers and staff.
These have included enforcing social distancing measures, implementing new disinfection protocols, requiring all visitors to wear face masks, introducing over 200 hand sanitiser stations across the airport campus and, most recently, becoming the first airport in the world to purchase and deploy the Xenex LightStrike robot to help it combat the deadly virus.
From the get-go SAT realised that reassuring the travelling public and airport staff about its efforts to combat COVID-19, subsequently restoring confidence in aviation, would be key to its recovery.
As a result its response to the pandemic has also included improving its communication – and specifically the relaying of important information and messages – with different airport stakeholders, and launching a number of consumer confidence videos to reassure passengers that SAT is safe to use.
“The resumption of services is critical. However, how we manage through this storm is equally important,” says airport director, Jesus Saenz.
“My old adage is if you fail to plan, you plan to fail, so that is why we developed and established our Covid-19 Task Force, which coupled with a very strategic airport playbook with a plethora of activities and guiding principles are designed to win back passenger confidence and faith in all that we are doing here.”
Saenz is particularly proud of SAT’s deployment of the locally made Xenex LightStrike robot, which uses ultraviolet (UV) room disinfection technology to eliminate SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Operated by the airport’s terminal services staff, it can be used anywhere in the airport – to include jet bridges, gate areas, ticketing counters, baggage claim, concessions, elevators and restrooms – where there are high-touch surfaces or high volumes of traffic.
Impact of COVID-19 on traffic
Like most airports, SAT’s worst days during the pandemic were in March, April and May when its enplanement numbers fell from last year’s average of 15,000 passengers per day to just a few hundred.
However, the enplanement figure rose to between 4,000 and 5,000 passengers a day in July and August, and Saenz believes that the recovery of the last few months is reflective of the immediate steps the airport took to ensure the overall health and wellbeing of passengers and staff.
He is also quick to note that the city administration’s decision to replicate many of the COVID-19 practices implemented at SAT across the entire county and region have been a major success and benefitted the whole community, keeping infection levels down and people safe.
As a result, Saenz reveals that he continues to go into work as he feels perfectly safe at San Antonio International Airport and “wants to lead by example”.
“I have no doubts that our efforts to combat COVID-19 and keep everybody safe have been reflected by the little bit of a favourable rebound that we are experiencing,” says Saenz.
“Are we back to pre-COVD numbers? Absolutely not, but we are 30% to 35% back to where we were previously and I’m optimistic that we’ll have the opportunity to grow back more traffic before the end of the year.”
The appeal of SAT
Texan and industry veteran Saenz joined SAT from Houston Airport System in February 2020, feeling that after 24 years with the airport operator the time was right to leave his role as its chief operating officer for the challenge of running his own airport system.
He says that SAT’s traffic growth, fuelled by the region’s growing reputation as both a leisure destination and innovation centre, particularly in the fields of biotechnology, robotics and cybersecurity, meant that the opportunity to come to San Antonio was simply one
he couldn’t turn down.
“The chance to help shape the future of the fastest growing airport in Texas based on traffic growth of the last few years is an incredible honour and one I wholeheartedly embrace, even if 2020 hasn’t quite turned out to be the year that we all expected,” says Saenz.
“Everything that the cities of Houston, Dallas and now Austin have grown to, San Antonio has the potential to emulate. San Antonio is already the seventh largest city in the United States and its wide appeal means that it will continue to expand and develop as a city and region.”
Saenz adds that he was also personally attracted to San Antonio by the culture, beauty and diversity of the city, its rich Texas history and the warm and welcoming nature of its people.
He also believes that the local community, which includes some 50,000 ex-military personnel who have retired in the area, are generally supportive of SAT as they appreciate the benefits that it brings.
SAT’s role in Texas’ airport system
Coming from Houston, Saenz is well aware that George Bush Intercontinental (IAH) is a much bigger airport than SAT in terms of passenger numbers, as is Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW).
SAT also currently trails Dallas Love Field (DAL), Austin-Bergstrom (AUS) and Houston Hobby (HOU) in terms of passenger throughput, but that doesn’t mean that it is small as it handled 10.4 million passengers in 2019 to maintain its ranking as the state’s sixth busiest gateway.
Saenz says that SAT has traditionally served as a domestic O&D gateway for San Antonio and the South Central Region of Texas with a route network covering most major US cities and a handful of international destinations in Mexico.
However, based on the growth of the last few years and the fact that 10% of SAT’s passengers are either from or destined for international destinations via other US hubs, Saenz believes that the airport has the potential to become much more than an O&D gateway for domestic traffic.
“After DFW, Houston-George Bush Intercontinental and Dallas Love Field, San Antonio has the potential to be the next big thing,” enthuses Saenz.
“The major US airlines all serve this airport and their reach extends to well over 40 destinations in the US, and a couple internationally, but I think the growth of the city, the beautiful surrounding area and a developing and diversifying economy make San Antonio an attractive destination to many and means that there is much more to come.
“We definitely have the potential for more international routes, particularly a non-stop service to western Europe, and this is something we will continue to work on when the time is right post-COVID.”
He also cites Mexico, Central America, Latin America and the Caribbean as offering the strongest potential for international route development in the future.
Based on the San Antonio Convention and Visitors Bureau’s figures indicating that San Antonio gets an estimated 32 million visitors a year, attracting people to the city and region doesn’t appear to be a problem.
Indeed, a record 1.8 million people visited The Alamo and San Antonio Missions National Historical Park last year, which together were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2015.
While other popular attractions include San Antonio’s downtown River Walk, the Tower of Americas, SeaWorld, Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Morgan’s Wonderland amusement parks and the surrounding Texas Hill Country which draws millions of hikers, bikers and holidaymakers each year.
All add up to making San Antonio the leading tourist destination in Texas and one of the US’s top leisure destinations after Los Angeles, Orlando and New York.
The most popular routes served from SAT today are Las Vegas, Denver, Los Angeles, Dallas and Atlanta while the Mexican cities of Mexico City, Monterrey and Guadalajara (all served daily) and Cancun (seasonal) make up its international route network.
The top five airlines at SAT based on last year’s figures are Southwest (38%), American (23%), United (15%), Delta (13%) and Frontier (5%), with Southwest accounting for close to four million passengers and American around 2.3 million.
Saenz notes that with the exception of 10 destinations that are no longer served non-stop from SAT, the airport has maintained most of its route network in 2020, although with reduced frequencies due to the drop in demand.
Key economic generator
Located around nine miles or a 10 minute drive from San Antonio’s Central Business District, there is no doubting that SAT is a driving force for the city and region’s economy.
SAT’s last Economic Impact Report in 2018 revealed that it generated $5.2 billion a year in revenue for San Antonio and directly supported 6,500 jobs – including around 500 that work for San Antonio Aviation Department – and a further 36,000 indirectly across the city and region.
Although those impressive figures will inevitably be down in 2020 due to the impact of the pandemic, Saenz is 100% certain that the downturn is only temporary and that growth and economic development will be on the trajectory again in the future.
He says: “Nobody can predict how long the current situation will last, but one thing is for sure, today’s unprecedented traffic declines across the world are only temporary and the good times will return again in the future, whether that is in 2021, 2022 or three or four years from now, because a fully functioning SAT is vital to the economic success of San Antonio.”
Reassuringly for airport employees and locals, he notes that the airport has a plan for each scenario and that these plans will at some point involve an upgrade to SAT’s existing facilities which pre-COVID were beginning to struggle to cope with peak time demand.
Saenz tells Airport World that infrastructure development was very much top of mind when he joined SAT in February, with the airport close to finalising a new strategic development plan for the next 20 years that was expected to outline proposals for new passenger facilities, roadways and airfield enhancements.
It is still under consideration, although COVID-19 has persuaded Saenz and his team to push back making any decisions on the next phase of SAT’s development until the summer of 2021 as it is felt that they might have a clearer picture of where the market is heading a year from now.
Although he won’t be drawn on specifics, the future of SAT’s Terminal A will certainly be under the microscope as the compact, 17-gate facility is now 38 years old and has struggled to keep up with demand.
He comments: “We have some big decisions to make and our actions will decide the fate of the airport for the next twenty to thirty years, so we will take a little more time and make sure that we make the right decisions for San Antonio International Airport.
“All I can tell you for now is that we will look at each of our facilities to see if they match current and future demand. Prior to my arrival, the airport identified the requirement for a number of new airside and landside facilities to allow it to continue to grow. These exciting plans helped attract me here in the first place and are still very much on the agenda.”
Sounds like growth and good times lie ahead for SAT and San Antonio, it is just a question of when rather than if as it would take a fool to bet against Military City USA not beating COVID-19.