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San Jose airport adapts to new world of travel

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Ridership is climbing back up across Bay Area airports after COVID-19 sent traffic plummeting, and the battle for airway dominance is intensifying.

Oakland officials this week approved renaming its airport to include “San Francisco” in the title, provoking a lawsuit from the region’s dominant competitor across the bay, San Francisco International. But it also raises questions down south for San Jose Mineta International Airport, whose corporate commuters managed to keep SJC in second place ahead of Oakland in terms of ridership. Still, San Jose airport’s ridership numbers — more than 12 million in 2023 — haven’t returned to its 15.6 million peak in 2019.

“Certain routes that rely heavily on business travelers have not recovered and some no longer exist in San Jose, but the airport is doing all it can to attract (airlines) to key destinations and continued growth,” San Jose Councilmember and Airport Commission Liaison David Cohen told San José Spotlight. “We have had success in the last couple of years.”

Junior Vailea said he prefers flying out of San Jose than his hometown Oakland airport. Photo by Brandon Pho.

Oakland resident Junior Vailea is a fan of SJC. He prefers the 42-mile trek south over flying out of the airport in his own city.

“Mineta is for sure my first choice,” Vailea told San José Spotlight. “It’s very easy to access. Coming to the gates is always really easy. Better than the other airports. The waits aren’t too long, actually — it’s pretty fast going through TSA. That’s why I come here to travel.”

Part of the struggle to boost travel at the 75-year-old airport is dealing with a different world — one where expansion plans are on pause as business travel gives way to remote meetings and international flights like British Airways and Lufthansa have cut ties with SJC due to low demand.

“We suspect that the slow rebound in business travel, which is yet to fully recover globally, is having a significant impact on our recovery,” airport spokesperson Ana State told San José Spotlight. ” That said, post-pandemic, we are adapting to the market.”

In mid-March a new airport director, Mukesh “Mookie” Patel, arrived to take SJC into a new era. Patel comes to San Jose from Texas, where he was the head of business and finance for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and the city said he increased non-airline revenues by 9% within three years. Patel declined to comment.

San Jose airport revenue last year was slightly better than pre-pandemic years. In 2019, total airport revenue — excluding federal grant funding — was more than $234 million. In 2023 revenues increase by 2% to more than $238 million. Revenue, including grants for 2023, has boosted monies close to $280 million.

Nationally, the airport was recognized as the best midsize airport in the United States, according to the Wall Street Journal’s 2023 Airport Rankings. Oakland is also a midsize airport, but San Jose has outpaced its competitor in travelers, other than 2021. San Francisco falls into the major airport tier and is the second largest in the state after Los Angeles International Airport.

Travel on the rise

SJC added two new airlines last year: ZIPAIR, which flies to Tokyo, and low-cost Spirit Airlines. State said both have increased their frequencies within their first year of operations.

“Certainly leisure travel has returned,” former San Jose Airport Commissioner and current county Airports Commissioner Dan Connolly told San José Spotlight. “But I don’t think we’re going to see those pre-pandemic numbers come back for many many years. I just don’t see us getting much in the way of international air travel back to San Jose.”

Eight international carriers operated at the airport in 2017, including AeroMexico, Air China and All Nippon Airways. That number has since dropped to two — Volaris, which goes to Mexico, and ZIPAIR. When travel restrictions began due to the pandemic, the airport had a total of 13 domestic and international airlines soaring through the Silicon Valley skies. Now there are 10. Direct long-haul travel is also limited, with only seasonal direct flights to New York and Boston. Spirit Airlines announced last week the launch of four nonstop weekly flights to Baltimore starting in June.

Sunnyvale resident Arijana Hawkes said she prefers flying out of San Jose for the convenience and navigability. Photo by Brandon Pho.

Sunnyvale resident Arijana Hawkes said she often flies Southwest out of San Jose.

“I would like to see more east coast flights,” Hawkes told San José Spotlight. “My husband’s family is from back east and if we’re going to see them we usually fly out of SFO.”

Hawkes added the lengthy distance to and from the gates in Terminal B should have a movable walkway for people who have a disability or difficulty walking.

“I have a friend with a really bad knee who came to visit last year,” Hawkes said. “She was not impressed.”

SJC’s website attributes the lack of moving walkways to its narrow footprint — corridors that are not wide enough to accommodate a people mover and foot traffic.

Over the horizon

Even as SJC pushes to increase travel, Connolly said there is a looming problem that could hamstring the airport’s future expansion plans.

When the city considered raising building height restrictions near the airport in 2019, the airport commission disagreed with the decision and instead recommended a middle ground that would raise the height limits without conflicting with flight safety requirements.

The city disagreed, raising the building heights beyond the recommendations. Multiple airlines told San José Spotlight back in 2021 their operations had not been affected by the 2019 city policy. But Connolly said airlines in the coming years may be more reluctant to sign long-term agreements with the airport if building height limits increase. This could force airlines to carry fewer passengers to meet safety requirements, costing air carriers millions in revenue.

“The business community pushed and pushed to get an international airport here. The city threw that all away because of some developers,” Connolly said.

Despite the airport’s slow ridership recovery and shortage of international carriers, travelers prefer San Jose Mineta International Airport. Photo by Brandon Pho.

State, the airport spokesperson, said no buildings have been constructed in downtown that would obstruct the flight path at this time.

“We have studied (the issue) extensively and shared back in 2019, even then, (that) higher buildings being built in downtown San Jose would have a very minimal impact on flight operations,” State told San José Spotlight.

Expansion in the future

San Jose is still paying off its $1.2 billion, 30-year bond issued in 2007 to finance the massive expansion and modernization project that built Terminal B, which opened in 2010 and hosts Alaska and Southwest airlines. The city restructured the bond as interest rates dropped in 2017, and as of last June the city had paid off $261 million, leaving approximately $958 million in outstanding debt.

Prior to the pandemic, officials spent $58 million adding six temporary gates to the south end of Terminal B as the airport’s growth accelerated. The gates opened in 2019. The Federal Aviation Administration also has allocated $10 million toward improving accessibility at the San Jose airport.

“There is a long term plan for the airport to expand. Without COVID, I think the expansion would be underway now,” Cohen told San José Spotlight. “The plan is already in place for permanent gates. I do think traffic will grow, so at some point that expansion will occur. The hope is that the trigger point will be sometime over the next five years.”

Statue of X and O in front of San Jose airport Terminal B with airport sign in back
San Jose Mineta International Airport saw a slight uptick in foot traffic during the 2023 holiday season compared to the prior year, according to airport officials. Photo by B. Sakura Cannestra.

Cohen said there haven’t been any discussions in San Jose about what implications Oakland’s rebrand could have for the airport.

“In my opinion, there is a natural clientele for Oakland’s airport in the East Bay and a natural clientele for San Jose’s airport in the South Bay. That is unlikely to change based on the name of the airport,” Cohen said. “There is potentially some competition there. But I still think San Jose can compete as it has in the past.”

Contact Brandon Pho at [email protected] or @brandonphooo on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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