SAN ANGELO, TX — On the City Council’s secret executive session meeting agenda two weeks ago was an item concerning an “economic development” initiative for San Angelo’s airport, Mathis Field. We asked around and everyone in charge was mum about what that was. Was it a new aviation services company? The sale of an FBO to Angelo State University? Airport Manager Jeremy Valgardson didn’t know when asked. He said there are multiple initiatives, including preparations for the air race in late 2021, but was unsure if any deal was close to being struck concerning a second airline.
Here’s what was learned, and it’s not much more than speculation at this point.
A second airline may be coming to San Angelo. This one will provide non-stop commercial air passenger service from the San Angelo Municipal Airport at Mathis Field to somewhere, and Houston is usually mentioned as the likely destination. City leaders are pitching the idea to an airline, and the airline is receptive, but nothing is signed so the deal could fall flat. The agenda item being labeled with “economic development” led us to believe the deal could include financial incentives paid with the 1/2-cent sales tax that the City collects for economic development.
There are a few possibilities as to what airline this may be. United Airlines maintains a large hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. If the seats can be filled here, San Angelo is a potential feeder route for United’s Houston hub, and to fill flights to destinations across the world.
Could the suitor be United? Do not make that conclusion too fast.
This is because there’s also news coming out of Utah of a start-up airline called Breeze Airways. The airline was formed in 2017 by the same entrepreneur who founded JetBlue two decades ago, David Neeleman. According to recent news reports, Breeze Airways vows to be “the world’s nicest airline” and, as part of its business plan, will connect mid-sized cities currently underserved by the big air carriers. The airline will operate a fleet of Embraer 195 planes like this one pictured below.
The E-195 carries 108 or 118 passengers depending upon the seating configuration and can operated out of airfields like Mathis with its 8,000-foot-long main runway. Envoy American Airlines currently operates the E-145 out of San Angelo with a passenger capacity of 50.
Back in February 2020, Neeleman told CNBC that the company is eying 500 city pairs for building their airline network. The startup airline’s commercial operations officer, Likas Johnson, led the effort to build the Allegient Air network that flies non-stop to places like Las Vegas out of Laredo, McAllen, Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Shreveport, Louisiana. Neeleman said that the major carriers left 25 percent of the potential air travel market on the table by ignoring secondary markets in favor of the hub and spoke approach.
“[I]f we have a plane that’s smaller with a lower trip cost, there’s a lot of opportunity,” Kneeleman told CNBC in February.
City officials are tight-lipped about any new air carrier joining existing Envoy, the American Airlines regional jet carrier here, because making deals with other carriers can jeopardize the City’s relationship with American. This is why, if the council’s airport economic development discussion was about a second airline, the secrecy of doing so in executive session.
The terminal at Mathis with two gates serving American’s nine total flights per day has plenty of slots for a second airline to operate, so this is not an either-or proposition. However, competing air services can dilute the local air passenger market even if the second airline services just Houston, an alternate hub airport, to where American does not currently provide service.
Flying out of San Angelo has advantages for those living in the Concho Valley. Airport parking is free and the lines are relatively short going through security to board a plane. Even with the connecting flight to DFW on Envoy, air fares are low. A round-trip ticket from San Angelo to Los Angeles is $266 if purchased well in advance, according to American Airline’s website. This is not as cheap as the $89 it costs to fly from DFW to LAX right now, however. The coronavirus pandemic has greatly decreased demand for air travel and prices, especially to cities such as Los Angeles, that are on full lockdown due to Covid-19.
Starting up an airline during the pandemic is difficult. Breeze Airways’ September 2020 filing with the US Department of Transportation stated that acquiring and operating a second aircraft type, a fleet of Airbuses, that were eyed by Neeleman for longer-haul hops, was delayed until August 2021 due to the pandemic. And, Breeze pushed back its initial flight dates with its smaller E-195s from October 2020 to March 2021.
“The company is unsurprisingly not disclosing any specific network plans, other than that its initial service will include three flights from an airport in the Southeastern US,” CAPA reported.
At the same time, CAPA reported, the management team at Breeze believes the pandemic is creating more opportunities for their upstart airline. The DOT filing also mentioned additional routes to and from two southern US cities. In previous reports, Fort Worth’s Mechum Field, not Houston, was being eyed by Breeze’s management team a while ago. By month 12 of operations, or by March 2022, Breeze forecasts to have flights originating from 20 airports in the U.S.
Based upon clues in reports and Breeze’s DOT filing, it seemed as though Breeze operating out of San Angelo anytime soon is a long shot.
Maybe the suitor is someone else?
Any deals made with an upstart airline with economic development dollars will likely be vetted by the board at the City of San Angelo Development Corporation (COSA-DC). We will be watching those future agendas when published for more clues.
The bottom line so far is we know the City is eying an additional airline and potentially in talks with one. We don’t know what airline. If San Angelo lands a new air carrier in the era of Covid, it means this area’s future economic prospects are excellent. But for now, until we see concrete action, let’s just say this place looks good on paper.