San Antonio Int’l Solicits Broad Community Involvement for 50-year Master Plan San Antonio Int’l Solicits Broad Community Involvement for 50-year Master Plan

San Antonio Int’l Solicits Broad Community Involvement for 50-year Master Plan
Mindy Hamlin
Published in: 

When it came time for San Antonio International Airport (SAT) to update its master plan, officials knew that many in the growing city felt there was no room left to expand at the airport’s current site. 

“For years, the community has been debating if the airport’s site will meet the needs of the airport for future decades,” says Russ Handy, aviation director for the city of San Antonio.

One reason for the debate was the tremendous growth that has taken place at SAT since airport officials turned their focus to securing new air service in 2015.

Prior to then, passenger growth had remained flat. However, as the San Antonio metro area grew, the airport recognized it had an opportunity to attract new air service and hired an air service development executive to attract new air service to the city. Since then, the airport has grown 10% to 12% annually.


Project: Master Plan Update & Strategic Plan

Location: San Antonio Int’l Airport

Master Plan Consultant: WSP

Public Involvement Subconsultants: Auxiliary Marketing Services; Poznecki-Camarillo

Cost Estimating: Connico

Noise: Environmental Science Associates Regional Economic Analysis: Economic & Planning Systems

Facility Planning – Terminal: Hirsh Associates

Facility Planning – Drainage: Maestas
& Associates

Environmental Resources & Utilities: Poznecki-Camarillo

Airport GIS: Quantum Spatial

Forecasting & Financial Planning

“This year, we will exceed 10 million in passengers,” Handy reports. “We believe that steep curve was due to some areas that were ripe for air service development, so we don’t foresee the same growth in the future. We expect it will flatten out to 1 or 2%.”

The airport’s passenger growth coincided with several major capital improvement projects, including a new rental car facility and parking garage. As it checked off many projects on its master plan, the airport decided to update the plan for the next decades. 

“It was time,” explains Handy. “After seven to eight years, enough had changed in the community, including the diversity of businesses, airport design standards and in what people expect in the airport experience. We needed to update our Airport Layout Plan with the FAA, and it was time to do a holistic strategic plan.”

Public Opinion Influences Planning

As SAT began to launch its master plan program, much of the community assumed that a new airport would have to be built at some point to meet future air service demand without constraints or congestion. Airport leaders were not so sure. 

“Many folks thought the airport was too small and landlocked,” Handy relates. “However, our airline partners and city leaders saw we had a lot of potential.”

What the airport needed, officials concluded, was data to back up its assumptions. So it turned to engineering and professional services firm WSP.

“There was a regional debate going on about congestion at the airport,” says John van Woensel, the company’s national aviation planning manager and vice president. “There had been construction and demolition for eight years straight, and it caused congestion and changes in the roadway. It made the airport site seem tighter than it is.”

The airport and WSP decided to take a strategic, longer-term approach and to focus phase one of its master plan program on the question of whether or not the airport could expand at its current location. They devised a compressed six-month planning effort and launched a comprehensive public engagement effort to answer this question.

“Instead of us, as the consultant, saying that it fits, we needed to produce data and let people make their own decision,” explains van Woensel.

WSP consequently kicked off a data-driven study based on aggressive growth projections over the next 50 years, compared to the more typical 20-year horizon for most airport master plans.

Wide Outreach 

To ensure broad public input, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg appointed representatives from aviation and non-aviation-related businesses to the airport system development committee. 

“The committee included everyone from small IT companies to large cybersecurity firms,” van Woensel points out. “It was a really good mix of people who could make a decision without political interest.”

Throughout the process, the airport presented its findings and recommendations to the committee, which ultimately made recommendations to the mayor and the San Antonio City Council.

In addition to the mayor’s committee, WSP and the airport created additional committees and working groups, including a technical committee, transportation partners planning group and a general stakeholder working group, which included representatives from groups not included on the other committees.

Committees, however, were only part of a larger strategy that not only targeted airport users, but also residents who were infrequent travelers.

“This group included representatives from homeowners’ associations, the LGBTQ community, organizations for the aging and young professionals’ organizations,” van Woensel chronicles. “Everyone in this group represented a constituency that needed to be represented. They offered us a wide reach to the community because they reported the information we gave them back to members of their groups.”

To support its outreach efforts, WSP contracted Auxiliary Marketing Services, a public engagement firm, and engineering/planning company Poznecki-Camarillo, both local disadvantaged business enterprise firms with deep connections throughout the community

“They understood the local lay of the land and had experience launching community engagement programs in the region,” says van Woensel. “We coordinated with the airport, of course, and made sure we were closely orchestrated to show we were all on the same frequency.”

During the outreach campaign, WSP addressed what it would take to build a new airport.

“We showed people what the process was to get a new airport,” says van Woensel. “We recognized that it sounds good and exciting until you look at what it takes and costs. We said, ‘Here is the process for building a new airport,’ and people said, ‘That won’t work for us.’”

Additional tools used for broader public engagement included open houses with presentations on the hour, handouts, flyers, electronic surveys,
pop-up meetings, committees and reading lists.

“It was important to target areas of the city where there are folks who don’t use the airport a lot,” notes Handy. “They are citizens and need to understand the airport’s plans as well. We have learned that you have to be appropriately targeted and broad. If you don’t, you learn that later. If you are not inclusive, you pay for it later when you try to sell your plan.”

The amount of feedback the airport received illustrated the community’s interest in SAT’s future. “This is my 33rd year developing master plans,” reflects van Woensel. “I have never seen 2,500 surveys answered. It’s really incredible. The residents of San Antonio really care about their community and airport.”

Findings & Feedback 

WSP’s preliminary findings during phase one indicated that SAT has the land, and can purchase additional land if needed, to support the construction of new terminals and runways to meet future demand.

“Based on high-level demand projected for 50 years, we were able to estimate how many acres would be needed for a new terminal and parallel runways,” explains van Woensel. “While we did not come up with a final plan, we did explore high-level alternatives and found that there are several options in which a terminal will fit. There are also a couple of ways they can go with the airfield.”

As phase one neared completion, WSP and the airport presented their findings to the various committees and to the general public at open house events. The airport system development committee then made a recommendation to the mayor and city council, which gave the airport the green light to move forward with phase two. 

“There were some surprises among the city leadership when we showed them the data,” Handy recalls. “The community and committee were surprised they had the real estate to expand.”

WSP’s van Woensel credits the airport with success of phase one.

“We did a lot of meetings, and the airport showed up at every event,” he reports. “Airport staff participation in the open houses was very important. People always saw the airport there, and they were available for questions and open to people’s feedback. They committed to make this happen in six months and committed tremendous time to making all of this happen.”

WSP and the airport are now turning their attention to phase two of the master plan, which will set the airport’s priorities and goals for the next five, 10 and 20 years.

“Although phase one looked like it would be tough, that was the easy part,” reflects Handy. “Now it is time to ask ourselves, ‘What does this all mean?’ We are excited to jump in and get to the hard work.”


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