It’s been a local dream for ages and now it’s finally happening. On May 17 of next year, San Antonio’s first transatlantic flight will operate with thrice-weekly summer-seasonal service to Frankfurt on Condor. It’s actually rather remarkable that the city hasn’t had service before.
San Antonio’s airport lies 66 miles as the crow flies southwest of Austin’s airport. By road, the two downtowns are less than 80 miles apart. Austin’s metropolitan statistical area has nearly 2.3 million in population in the 2020 census while San Antonio’s was just over 2.5 million. Despite these similarities, their long-haul air service success couldn’t be more different.
It’s been almost a decade since Austin got its first flight outside the Americas, but the list keeps growing.
- British Airways started flying to London/Heathrow in March 2014 and has operated a daily flight ever since (excluding pandemic times)
- Condor flew to Frankfurt for the summers of 2016-2018 before leaving
- Norwegian entered the market from London/Gatwick for the summer of 2018 and continued seasonally until it shuttered its long-haul operation
- Lufthansa started Frankfurt service 5x weekly in May 2019, and resumed after the pandemic in May 2022 at 3x weekly where it has stayed
- KLM started 3x weekly to Amsterdam from March 2022
- Virgin Atlantic started 4x weekly (3x in winter) to London/Heathrow in May 2022
Compared to that enviable track record, San Antonio has received… absolutely nothing… until this Condor announcement. What gives? The devil is, as they say, in the details.
Though the population sizes are similar in the metro areas, Austin is decidedly richer. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the average per capita personal income in Austin in 2020 was $64,916, climbing rapidly above $71,000 the next year. Meanwhile in San Antonio, the 2020 number was $50,214, climbing at a less rapid clip to $53,648 in 2021. That’s a big difference, but do keep in mind that the cost of living is also 11 percent higher in Austin, so your money doesn’t stretch as far.
The nature of employment in each city is also quite different. Austin, as most know, is the state capital so it has a large government presence. It’s also a big education city with the main campus of the University of Texas in town. But recent growth has been as a tech hub, and it has boomed. Back in the 2010 census, the Austin MSA had just over 1.7 million people while San Antonio was over 2.1 million, and much of that growth has been thanks to high-paying tech jobs which enable significant travel.
If you look at Austin, the non-goverment/education companies employing 6,000 people or more are not a surprise:
- Ascension Seton (Headquarters)
- Dell Technologies (Headquarters)
- IBM Corp.
- Samsung Austin Semiconductor (Headquarters)
- St. David’s HealthCare Partnership (Headquarters)
Meanwhile if Austin is tech, San Antonio is military. The list of employers over 6,000 people is smaller:
- H-E-B (Headquarters)
- USAA (Headquarters)
- Rackspace (Headquarters)
- Whataburger (Headquarters)
It also has the UT Health Science Center and the university’s San Antonio branch which has historically been more of a commuter school. But more impactful is that it has nearly 75,000 people working at four different bases in the region consolidated under Joint Base San Antonio. In other words, you’d think San Antonio could support one lousy flight to Europe. Now it gets its chance.
I took a look at ARC/BSP data for June 2023 (since this new service is summer-only) just to get a sense of what Condor is working with. In June, there were about 425 people daily going each way between San Antonio and Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 1,300 to/from Austin. But we have to remember that Austin is creating some of those numbers. You can be sure there is huge leakage from San Antonio to Austin so people can get on the nonstop flights. And of course, just having a nonstop flight at all helps boost demand when people are thinking about their travel plans.
If we break that down further, Germany alone has 60 people from San Antonio each way with half of those starting or ending in Frankfurt. That’s a pretty good base to start with considering there is no nonstop flight operating today. Condor can still sell connections through on Lufthansa as well, so there is opportunity to tap into a large enough market.
Remember, at only 3x weekly, Condor can also shift some passengers to different days of week so they can get the nonstop. That combined with people coming back from Austin should be able to fill this airplane, even though the A330neo being used seats 310 passengers.
There is a big incentive program behind this. Though I requested details from San Antonio’s airport, they did not respond. Axios, however, is reporting $1.3 million in incentives while there is also a pot of money from local businesses to be used as a guarantee. I’m not sure if that is included in the $1.3 million figure or not. Either way, Condor really can’t lose, especially with so few flights only between May and early September.
This may seem like a crazy amount of money to spend, but really, it should work. San Antonio is the largest metro area without nonstop service to Europe. (Sacramento is right behind, followed by Kansas City.) Considering the military operations there and in Germany, this seems like a decent opportunity that should work even beyond the summer season.
The only real downside for San Antonio is that Condor is not aligned with the airlines that dominate locally, so if there are still any mileage slaves out there, they might not be willing to do this. But at some point, San Antonio will make this work, and Condor is smart to be the one to give it a try.