Bloomberg — Mexico City’s newest airport, opening March 21, is meant to relieve traffic at the mega-city’s main hub. The eight daily flights it will start with won’t achieve this -- but that’s beside the point for President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
The Felipe Angeles airport, located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) north of Mexico City’s center, is a military base that the army converted into a commercial airport in about two and a half years. It’s the first of Lopez Obrador’s large infrastructure projects to be completed, and it’s meant to demonstrate his government’s efficiency and austerity.
The airport’s shoestring budget of 75 billion pesos ($3.6 billion) is a fraction of the $13 billion project that former President Enrique Peña Nieto started and which Lopez Obrador scrapped. Its inauguration comes just in time for a referendum the president has proposed on whether he should stay for the rest of his six-year term.
The opening has been criticized as rushed -- roads leading to the terminal remain unfinished and a promised train from the city is still far off. Nonetheless, Lopez Obrador is betting its completion will help him shore up support as scandals and a weak economy dent his high approval ratings.
The project canceled by Lopez Obrador would have completely replaced the city’s existing Benito Juarez airport, which has been plagued by congestion for decades. The smaller-scale Felipe Angeles, in contrast, is meant only to ease the burden on Benito Juarez, where the government has said it will no longer grant new flight permits.
Lopez Obrador has cited New York and London as examples of cities with multiple airports that operate simultaneously and that Mexico’s capital should emulate. But Maria Larriva, a former air traffic controller in Mexico City and an investigator in aviation accidents, says this ignores the metropolis’s unique geography.
“We’ve known for 30 years that the base is not a good place for a commercial airport,” she said in an interview. Multiple studies have documented problems, she added, including high altitude -- Mexico City is above 2,100 meters (7,000 feet), and this can alter how a plane performs. A nearby active volcano is another concern.
The president’s press office didn’t respond to a request for comment, but Mexican authorities argue that they redesigned the capital’s airspace last year to make Felipe Angeles more viable. The surrounding mountains still make takeoff and landing difficult, however.
“You can’t just make mountains disappear,” Larriva said. Even with only eight daily flights at Felipe Angeles, Benito Juarez will still have to suspend some operations due to safety precautions, she said -- offsetting any improvements in congestion that the new airport could offer. Studies show that both airports can’t operate simultaneously at maximum capacity, she said.
At Felipe Angeles, the military built a gleaming, glass terminal that houses a replica of the famous Aztec sun stone. With only two runways for commercial use and one for the military, it’s much smaller than what was planned by Peña Nieto. That project was designed in part by the firm of award-winning architect Norman Foster and would have had five commercial runways, with one for military use. Felipe Angeles is expected to handle 20 million passengers annually, versus the 35 million that Peña Nieto’s project was supposed to handle.
The new airport’s initial flights will be mostly domestic, with one international route operated by Venezuelan carrier Conviasa to Caracas. Grupo Aeromexico SAB (AEROMEX) will have flights to and from the Mexican cities of Merida and Villahermosa starting in April, while Volaris will fly to Tijuana and Cancun.
Connections to the U.S., which is by far Mexico’s biggest trade partner and home to millions of Mexicans, may still be a ways off: Mexico’s aviation-safety ranking was downgraded by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in May, prohibiting an expansion of flights from the nation’s carriers to the U.S. An improvement in the nation’s safety rating could still be some months away.
“The whole idea was to make it cheaper, to build an airport that is functional and that has some attractive design elements, but it is basically a political project,” said Jesus Carrillo, chief economist at the Mexico Institute for Competitiveness, a think tank. “What we don’t know is how much benefit it’s going to generate for the cost.”
Building Felipe Angeles saved the country 100 billion pesos (about $4.8 billion), Lopez Obrador has said. But there was also a high cost of canceling the earlier project, which was already well underway. Lopez Obrador said that construction was riddled with corruption.
The airport is one of a string of infrastructure projects the administration seeks to finish before its term ends in 2024. Other projects include a train that loops around the country’s southeast and an oil refinery.
A week before opening, the bus stop at the airport entrance still wasn’t completed. Few road signs showed the way.
Nevertheless, the public was eager to check the airport out. A sneak peek included a bike ride across the tarmac. Some visitors griped about the difficulty of getting there, but others marveled at how the terminal had sprung up out of nowhere and could spur development in the area, which has grown as workers flee the capital’s high costs.
Ramiro Ramirez Garcia, a 43-year-old repair man, came to see with his family. He voted for Lopez Obrador in three previous elections and vowed to take his first flight ever from the airport. “How is it possible to do so much for the country in so little time?” he said.
For now, many Mexico City residents can plan on a car trip that takes well over an hour, or even more with traffic. Google Maps has yet to establish the most reliable routes, with a reporter’s recent trip taking two and a half hours after being directed to a road that still wasn’t in service.
“There are many things that are missing,” Larriva said. “A good airport takes at least five years to plan and build correctly, but this administration wants everything for free and done yesterday.”