Tijuana courts Asian carriers

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Tijuana International Airport is seeking to attract an Asian carrier as it looks to build up its trans-pacific operation to offset a drop in domestic traffic.

Tijuana, which is operated by Mexican airport group Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico (GAP), now hosts two weekly Aeromexico flights to Shanghai and two weekly Aeromexico flights to Tokyo. GAP director of investor relations Miguel Aliaga says the airport is now trying to build on the success of the Tokyo and Shanghai routes, which were launched in November 2006 and May 2008 respectively, by adding an Asian carrier.

Aliaga says GAP has been speaking with several Asian carriers, including airlines from China and Japan, and is hopeful one will launch services to Tijuana by the end of 2010. "It won't happen in the near future. Maybe it will become possible in 2010," he says.

He adds GAP is prepared to expand and refurbish the international portion of the terminal, including the layout at immigration, to support more international flights.

Asian carriers willing to commit to Tijuana can look forward not only to new route incentives but the lowest airport charges in Mexico, according to Aliaga.

Tijuana in recent years has been trying to position itself as a bridge between Asia and South America, offering one-stop connections that are more convenient to passengers than transiting in the USA. Potentially Tijuana could replace a US airport on an existing Asia-Brazil route or attract a new carrier looking to launch a route between Asia and Latin America.

Asian carriers have traditionally served South America via the US. For example, Japan Airlines serves Sao Paulo via New York while Korean Air serves Sao Paulo via Los Angeles.

Stopping in the US, however, is not ideal because of visa restrictions. This was a factor in late 2007 when Air China selected Madrid as the stop for its new Sao Paulo service. Japan Airlines also now routes its Tokyo-Mexico City flights via Vancouver.

Aliaga says Tijuana is well positioned to handle flights between Asia and South America as well as between Asia and Mexico City.

Payload restrictions at Mexico City International Airport make it difficult for non-stop flights to Asia. These restrictions, which are due to Mexico City's high altitude, forced Aeromexico to look for a fuel stop when deciding to launch a Tokyo service in 2006 and a Shanghai service last year.

Tijuana in the end was selected for its geographic location but also local demand. The city has a large manufacturing industry with connections to both Asia, the US and South America.

Aeromexico operates the Mexico City-Tijuana-Tokyo and Mexico City-Tijuana-Shanghai routes, both of which consist of two flights per week, with 275-seat Boeing 777s.

Last year Tijuana Airport handled 4 million passengers, a 16.3% decrease compared with 2007. The decline was driven mainly by Tijuana-based domestic low-cost carrier Avolar, which slashed capacity by over 50% early last year. In October the carrier shut down entirely.