Latin American and Caribbean airline association ALTA is hopeful that Mexico will regain category 1 status under the US FAA's international aviation safety assessment (IASA) programme by the end of this year.

The FAA downgraded Mexico from category 1 to category 2 at the end of last month. As a result, Mexican carriers currently cannot launch any new services to the US or codeshare with US carriers, which ALTA executive director Alex de Gunten says puts them in a competitive disadvantage on transborder routes.

"The hope is this is a short-term issue and we will start 2011 already with category 1," de Gunten said in a 16 August interview with Flightglobal.

He acknowledges a country being able to return to category 1 status less than one year after an FAA downgrade is unusual but says "that's the hope and the expectation".

de Gunten and other ALTA officials met with the FAA on 16 August to discuss safety in the Latin America and Caribbean region including the IASA programme. While there are a few other countries in the region with category 2 ratings, de Gunten says upgrading Mexico is particularly crucial because it is the only Latin American country with a category 2 rating that has carriers that currently operate services to the USA.

de Gunten believes the downgrade can be resolved fast because it "was very much focused on a lack of check pilots. It's never just one thing but I think that was the key issue".

He says Mexico's DGAC is already working on training and hiring more check pilots.

"They have a lot of those pilots in Mexico; they just have to give them the resources," de Gunten says.

He says the root of the problem is Mexico's civil aviation authorities lacked the funds to hire an adequate number of check pilots, an issue which is now being resolved.

"One of our areas of concern as an industry in Latin America is we're spending over $4 billion in airport charges, navigation charges, etc and a very high percentage of that money doesn't get reinvested in the industry. They hold it for the national coffers and it goes to other issues and then there isn't money to do some of the things we need to do," de Gunten says. "Part of the problem in Mexico was a lack of funds to the civil aviation authorities to provide training and provision" for enough check pilots.

He says the IASA downgrade has "huge implications" for Mexican carriers because they are now at a competitive disadvantage compared to their US counterparts. US carriers already account for roughly two-thirds of the capacity in the US-Mexico market and their control of this market now stands to increase further because Mexican carriers will not be able to launch any new services to the US while Mexico is in category 2.

Mexican low-cost carrier Volaris in particular has plans to significantly expand its US services and begin codesharing with Southwest Airlines. de Gunten says Aeromexico may also be interested in directing more capacity to the US to fill the void left by Mexicana, which earlier this month slashed capacity after applying for bankruptcy protection.

"Mexicana is ramping down and the other Mexican carriers cannot put in capacity to take that traffic," de Gunten says. "It ties the hands of the operators."

Referring to the FAA's decision to downgrade Mexico de Gunten says: "We understand what they are trying to do. We agree with the objectives but we have some concerns the way category 2 is implemented by the US. It is kind of discriminatory [as the US is saying] 'were not comfortable with way you oversee airlines in your country so we will penalise your airlines'. But if you are that concerned about that, why do the foreign carriers that operate into that country have no restrictions and can do whatever they want?" de Gunten asks.

He adds US carriers "take advantage of that very strongly".

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news