q San Antonio Finally Gets a Transatlantic Flight – Cranky Flier

San Antonio Finally Gets a Transatlantic Flight

SAT - San Antonio

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:

  • Amazon
  • Apple
  • Ascension Seton (Headquarters)
  • Dell Technologies (Headquarters)
  • H-E-B
  • 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.

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18 comments on “San Antonio Finally Gets a Transatlantic Flight

  1. I’m all for new services, … but in that case, I’ll disagree with you ! Both Houston and Dallas have huge transatlantic networks, and if Austin and San Antonio start competing, I believe both will lose in the end !
    If the same company was serving both cities from Frankfurt, covering between both cities a daily flight, then I would be in favor, but here with the service being split between Lufthansa and Condor, they might end up being the same days !…

    1. Houston is oil and gas. Austin is tech and finance. Dallas is telecom and logistics. Austin continues to receive HQ’s from California and even Europe. So TATL in Austin will continue to grow.

  2. Good for SAT! Will be interesting to see what city lands the next TATL as you mentioned SMF, MCI, etc.

    I am an MCI native and quite frankly the business community here has done nothing to pool together money. I put other peer cities ahead of MCI even if demand is better in KC.

    1. The issue with MCI is it’s a short-hop flight to several large international hubs & therefore a push for international service isn’t as important. You have ORD, DEN, MSP, DTW, DFW, IAH & further a field you have LAX, SFO, JFK, EWR & IAD depending if the final destination is a primary or secondary city.

  3. Part of the difference is that San Antonio has a massive Hispanic population (Austin has a significant Hispanic population also but not like SA).

    These folks aren’t as likely to travel to Europe. Also, Austin is kind of “in” for travelers to visit, though as a Texas resident I can’t understand why anyone would want to visit here in the summer, especially this year (argh).

  4. Using similar logic, one could make an argument about SAT, SMF (even PDX, PHL, or CLT) being in the same area as international hubs.

    I agree, MCI has a lot of international hubs that people could connect in when leaving MCI, but I disagree that it’s terribly “close”. Distances between major metro areas (and international hubs) tend to be rather lengthy in the middle of the continent.

    DEN, DTW, & IAH are 500+ miles from MCI… Not necessarily “far”, but not really what I would consider to be a “short-hop” (block times for those routes are often closer to 1.5 or 2 hours than 1 hour), especially if heading in the “wrong” direction (e.g., MCI-IAH-Europe or MCI-MSP-LatAm).

    MCI is probably farther from a US legacy carrier hub than most other metro areas of similar population in the lower 48… Come to think, that’s actually a table/analysis I’d love to see, top 50 or 100 CONUS metro areas by population ranked by great circle distance to the nearest US legacy carrier hub.

      1. That is the point I was trying to make. In fact I saw a news report several years back that noted in the future we’re going to have fewer international hubs & the ones that remain will be global super hubs. In the US that refers to JFK/ EWR, IAD, ATL, ORD, DFW, IAH, LAX & SFO.

        1. You don’t need to be an international *hub* though. Just have flights to one.

          Go back several years and you have the logic that brought you the A380, namely thinking people would connect twice for intercontinental itineraries, with the middle leg on the likes of a 380.

          Turns out, people would rather fly directly to an international hub from near where they live, overflying their local congested international hub to get to a congested international hub near their destination. The 787, 330, and 350 handle this well, and as single aisle aircraft gain range it becomes easier to connect international traffic across a smaller hub like DUB or KEF rather than shoving everything through, say, LHR.

          AUS is a pretty solid example of this, with sub-daily nonstops to AMS/FRA and more than 1x/day to LHR. One of those LHR frequencies is even on a rather large A350. Sure, you could take a quick flight up to DFW for more options to London, but on a flight of that length additional daily frequencies matter little…you’re gonna take off in the evening and arrive the next morning.

          And sure, you could head to ATL to connect to AMS, or to IAH to connect to FRA, but why take an extra 2.5 hours and deal with a more annoying customs experience when coming back?

          I’m just looking forward to the A321XLR, which may be the plane that SAT needs to make TATL stick after the novelty of two flights to FRA from central TX wears off.

  5. Makes sense that Condor is trying central TX again, given their Austin flights until Lufthansa supplanted them.

    Now they have a better hard product, and thearket has grown enough to support double UK flights from central TX, so why not double DE ones?

    Interestingly, Condor will actually have more seats available from SAT than LH has from AUS unless LH bumps frequency, as LH will be using the 787-9 once the Condor flight starts.

    Also, right now there’s a massive price difference between SAT and AUS originating nonstops, with LH pricing out over $1700 round trip, and Condor around $1100 once you get the fare type including a carry-on. Will be interesting to see how pricing shakes out closer in, but if LH keeps prices 50% higher then I wouldn’t be surprised if some folks south of the river in Austin head down to San Antonio to save hundreds per person…and wind up using a less busy airport in the process, as AUS is a bit of a zoo of late (I was surprised how busy it was at 9pm last night).

  6. Condor is going to have difficulty pulling in that military base traffic. Per the Fly America Act, US Government travelers (including contractors) are required to fly US airlines whenever possible. Code shares do count, so they’d need to partner with a US airline that would sell this flight under their flight number and ticket stock. The partner airline would also need to win a city pair contract bid; for the SAT-FRA market this city pair contract is held by United in FY23 and will be American in FY24. In my mind, a sub-weekly service has a low chance of winning, unless the offering carrier has their own connecting service they can offer the other days of the week, and the same would apply for a seasonal service that would need to be supplemented the rest of the year.

  7. That is the point I was trying to make. In fact I saw a news report several years back that noted in the future we’re going to have fewer international hubs & the ones that remain will be global super hubs. In the US that refers to JFK/ EWR, IAD, ATL, ORD, DFW, IAH, LAX & SFO.

  8. SAT has the most potential for growth of any big Texas city. Why do I say that? Because Houston and DFW are already huge. They may keep growing but by smaller percentages as they become built out, pushing development farther and farther out. Austin? Very nice city that is starting to become a victim of it’s own success: horrible traffic (I-35 makes the 405 look quaint), rapidly increasing cost of living, explosive growth will eventually burn out a bit. The high prices are driving newbies farther out from Austin. And then there’s San Antonio, which has a genuinely charming downtown (with the riverwalk, La Villita, Market Square and yes the overrated Alamo). But SA also has a lot of room for growth and has high-end suburbs that are sneaking into the Hill Country (as Austin’s do). These are increasingly high end suburbs too. It’s a friendly area that feels more accessible than Austin, it’s cheaper, and simply has more room to grow in a state where growth will continue for a long time.

    One of the biggest issues with the SAT airport (IMO) is that it’s not very big. The terminal has been renovated in the past 20 years or so, but it’s still not all that large and is smaller than many others serving comparable (or smaller) cities. And Cranky made an interesting comment about Condor not attracting mileage (FF) warriors. True, but at SAT the dominant airline seems to be WN. None of the big 3 dominate there, unlike at every other big Texas airport (AUS is probably WN with DL a close second).

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