At the San Antonio airport, holiday travel has increased as the industry recovers


The latest airport statistics seem to tell a story of slow recovery.

A total of 763,606 passengers passed through San Antonio International Airport in December, according to data released by the airport lounge.

That number rises 112% in the same month in 2020, when the pandemic dampened a traditionally busy holiday season. But this is still only 86% of the total number of passengers seen in 2019, just before the start of the pandemic.

The Thanksgiving holiday season was also slightly slower than usual, with passenger numbers in November reaching 89% of levels seen in November 2019.

Nationally, December 23 was the busiest day for travel at U.S. airports during that month, with more than 2.1 million passengers, according to travel checkpoint data provided by the Transportation Security Administration. The busiest day for airports in the previous month for Thanksgiving travel was Nov. 28, with 2.45 million total passengers.

Similar passenger data for San Antonio seemed to indicate that people were ready to travel again, despite the emergence of the new omicron variant and the spike in case numbers in late December.

In all of 2021, more than 7.4 million passengers passed through San Antonio Airport, an 85% jump from the previous year. The total number of passengers was 72% lower than in 2019, a year described as a “record” by airport officials, with more than 10 million passengers in total.

While the number of flights departing from San Antonio to destinations in the United States fell 16% compared to December 2019, international traffic increased by 27% due to increased capacity on several routes to Mexico in December.

A recent report provided by airport officials said 2021 was a year of recovery, with all airlines resuming service to temporarily suspended markets. Along with the return to normal in the number of seats offered on some flights, airlines have also added a few new routes and two new carriers have joined the regular San Antonio lineup.

In May, Viva Aerobus launched direct service to León, in the Mexican state of Guanajuato, and in June, Sun Country launched summer seasonal service to Cancun.

Southwest Airlines, the airport’s largest carrier, offered new seasonal service to Colorado Springs, although its total capacity for the San Antonio airport remained below 38% of its 2019 capacity. The carrier had to deal with thousands of canceled flights over the fall and more cancellations and delays in December.

Because that 38% is an annual figure, it does not reflect the steady recovery that occurred later in 2021, bringing Southwest’s capacity in December to 26% below that of 2019, according to Brian Pratte, director of the development of SAT’s air services.

“The first part of the year was a little tougher while we waited for demand to pick up,” Pratte said. “As leisure demand began to strengthen, most carriers began to add capacity to the market.”

Some carriers added capacity faster than others, he added, with the challenges of bringing back both flight crews and planes contributing to a slower rebound in capacity.

Last year, two new airlines also began serving San Antonio in 2021.

In April, the city announced that JetBlue Airways would begin offering direct service in October to New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Boston Logan International. New carrier Breeze Airways has chosen San Antonio as one of its first markets and currently offers flights from San Antonio to northwest Arkansas.

Despite ongoing virus outbreaks affecting everything related to travel, from tourism to conventions and meetings, airport officials also expect new air services to launch from San Antonio this year.

Southwest Airlines is planning a new direct flight to Oklahoma City starting April 25 with service four days a week, increasing to six days in June. Delta Air Lines is scheduled to resume nonstop service to New York’s JFK Airport in May, and Sun Country plans to restart seasonal service to Minneapolis-St. Paul and Cancun, also in May.

Starting in June, United Airlines is looking to increase capacity on its San Francisco route and Southwest Airlines will launch new Saturday service to Albuquerque.

Whether consumers are ready to book these flights remains to be seen.

A recent study by the airline trade group International Air Transport Association found that plane tickets sold in December at any time in 2022 were half the level of December 2019.

Since travelers tend to book at the last minute, the decline will most likely be seen in actual traffic volumes in January and February 2022, the report said.

Although the association reported that the trend of slow ticket sales continued in the first half of January, it predicts a “rapid improvement” once the omicron wave recedes and travel restrictions will be relaxed.

In November, the city council approved a 20-year, $2.5 billion project to redesign the San Antonio airport. The plan includes extending a runway, adding a new terminal, increasing the number of gates and concessions, widening the concourses, relocating the air traffic control tower and improvement and rerouting of roads for vehicular traffic.

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