Mexico risks IASA downgrade as Aviacsa again resumes operations

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Some Mexican carriers are concerned the inability of Mexico's DGAC to ground Aviacsa over alleged safety concerns could lead to the country being downgraded under the FAA international aviation safety assessment (IASA) programme.

Mexico's Secretary of Communications and Transportation (SCT) and Aviacsa are now locked in a complex legal dispute over the legitimacy of a decision by its DGAC to ground the carrier. Aviacsa, after being grounded by the DGAC on 5 June, resumed operations on 8 June after it secured a highly controversial ruling by a judge in San Luis Potosi which reversed at least temporarily the grounding order.

The DGAC re-implemented the grounding order yesterday, forcing Aviacsa to cancel flights last night. But Aviacsa today was able to again resume operations after receiving a document from the same court authorizing it to operate all 26 of its Boeing 737s.

The SCT has vowed it will continue to challenge the ruling, claiming the DGAC has a right to ground carriers for safety concerns. If it continues to have an aviation authority that is unable to implement its own grounding orders, Mexico risks being in violation of ICAO regulations and subject to a downgrading by the FAA from IASA category 1 to category 2.

"Absolutely that's my concern," says Interjet chief executive officer Luis Garza. "It has severe implications for the whole industry."

Garza questions how a court was able to overturn the original grounding order and why the Mexican government is unable to enforce its own orders.

"The government has a mandate to oversee safety. That is not renounceable," Garza says. "They have to enforce it somehow."

An Aviacsa official, however, claims the carrier is complying with all airworthiness requirements from the Mexican DGAC. He says the carrier is also now complying with new safety-related requests from the DGAC and will continue to fight claims by the SCT that the carrier should be grounded because 25 of its 737s are not airworthy.

"That's why there's a judge. That's why there is a court," he says. "We expect to finish this chapter and focus on our operation."

But the case could drag on for months and will likely continue to raise questions about Mexico's ability to enforce its own aviation regulations.

"It demands a very serious examination," Garza says. "In principle when I see something from the authorities I have no reason to doubt that. The situation needs to be clarified very soon."

An FAA spokesman says "we are aware of the issues surrounding Aviacsa" but would not comment on whether the agency is considering downgrading Mexico's IASA rating.

For now Aviacsa continues to operate all its domestic routes as well as its one international route, which links Monterrey with Las Vegas. "Everything is regular," says the Aviacsa official.

He says traffic has been down about 40% since Aviacsa's original resumption of services on 5 June and the carrier has been operating at an average load factor of only 55%, compared to its normal average load factor of 75%. But he expects traffic will return to normal levels over the next couple of weeks even if the legal dispute with the SCT continues.

"People trust Aviacsa," he says. "We've been in business for 20 years. The current government has only been around for two years."

Aviacsa now operates 80 to 85 flights per day. Over the last year it has reduced capacity from a peak of about 120 daily flights due to the economic downturn. But it has the flexibility to add back flights during the peak summer season if demand warrants because it currently doesn't fully utilise its fleet of 23 737-200s and three 737-300s.

Meanwhile, Aviacsa continues to wage a separate legal battle that began last August after the SCT tried to ground the carrier because it is behind in paying air traffic control and airport fees. The SCT has said it will continue to fight this case as the carrier remains behind in paying government providers.

"We've been complaining about this because this is unfair," Garza says. "Everyone is paying their bills on time. Aviacsa is not. Something has to be done. Everybody has to be treated the same. It's very unfair if any of our competitors are receiving special treatment."

The Aviacsa official, however, says the carrier is being unfairly singled out and other carriers are also behind in these payments. He says the company is confident it will ultimately prevail in both legal cases.

Interjet, which has a fleet of 15 Airbus A320, currently only operates domestic services but has been considering launching services to the US. If Mexico is downgraded to category 2 under IASA, Interjet and other Mexican carriers currently not serving the US would be blocked from launching US services. All Mexican carriers currently serving the US also would be unable to expand their US operations until Mexico returns to category 1.