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  • ANALYSIS: Airlines still in the dark on Mexico City airport plan

ANALYSIS: Airlines still in the dark on Mexico City airport plan

Months after the decision of Mexico's government decision to scrap a long-needed airport for its capital city, the country's airlines remain confounded by how a complex alternative proposed by authorities will actually work.

The airline industry awaits details of the government's proposal of using a trio of airports to meet Mexico City's growing air passenger traffic needs, said IATA executives at the organisation's Aviation Summit in Mexico City on 28 February. The gathering brought together airline industry and government leaders for the first time since a controversial October 2018 referendum that led to the cancellation of the new airport.

But if airline chiefs had hoped to come away from the meeting with some clarity, they were sorely disappointed.

"We need the government to give us the first ideas of how it plans to manage the system," IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac told reporters at the summit. While he stresses that Mexico's government is open to working with airlines, de Juniac indicates that the industry still has little knowledge of how the three-airport system will be organised.

Peter Cerda, IATA regional vice-president of the Americas, says: "We need to see what the plan looks like. We don't have the information."

Mexico's transport minister Javier Jimenez Espriu himself offered few answers during a speech at the IATA event. Acknowledging that the move to cancel the new airport had been a controversial decision, he urged the industry to refrain from criticism but to offer ideas so that authorities overseeing the airport plan can "face the challenges".

He defended his government's move to scrap the new airport, citing factors like the site's distance from the city and the delays to construction of the facility. The location of the new airport – a dry lake in Texcoco – would have made future maintenance difficult, says Jimenez Espriu, who took office on 1 January as part of Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's administration.

The government's complicated proposal for an alternative system of three airports for Mexico City would involve improving the existing airport, expanding an airport in the secondary city of Toluca, and converting the Santa Lucia military air base into a commercial airport. Mexico has estimated that Santa Lucia could open to commercial traffic in 2022.

Deputy transport minister Carlos Moran Moguel says the government is in the "very early stages" of developing a masterplan around the Mexico City airport system, adding: "We have a long way to go… We are in the starting phase where we hope to have strong participation from airlines and international organisations."

Jimenez Espriu says the three airports will satisfy Mexico City's passenger traffic needs for the next 30 years, but various stakeholders have called the three-airport system proposal unfeasible for modern airline operations and potentially unsafe.

US non-profit research organisation MITRE Corporation, which has advised previous Mexican governments on alternatives to the congested Mexico City airport, has said that opening Santa Lucia to commercial service will result in airspace complexity – the effects of which have not been simulated.

Questions also remain regarding the military's potential involvement in managing Santa Lucia – an anomaly not usually seen at commercial airports.

Commercial airport operations are, de Juniac points out, "completely different" from how military air bases are run. Commercial airports, for example, have to be revenue-generating and must provide passenger amenities, he says.

MITRE says the site of the now-cancelled new airport was the most feasible solution for Mexico City, and would have provided enough capacity for the city's traffic operational needs for decades to come. Mexico City's current airport is already bursting at the seams. Built for 32 million passengers annually, it handled 48 million last year.

CONNECTIVITY HEADACHE

Even as it remains anyone's guess how a three-airport system in Mexico City will operate, airline chiefs are underlining the immense complexities that will result for connecting passengers forced to travel among three different airports.

Pointing to other cities served by more than one airport, including New York, London and Paris, de Juniac notes: "It's a permanent reshuffle, rethinking. It's really, really complex." In Mexico City's case, having three airports could be further compounded by the city's geographic constraints. "The altitude, the mountains, the winds, the temperature," says de Juniac. "We have plenty of constraints."

The physical distance among the three airports will make efficient connections a challenge. Toluca is 44 miles (70km) southwest of Mexico City airport – or about a 90min drive away. The Santa Lucia air base, meanwhile, is in the other direction of the airport at about 32 miles northeast or a 60min drive away.

"We've never seen good connectivity between two airports with a distance of 70km," says de Juniac. "It's common sense."

Mexico's airlines are already distancing themselves from the possibility of operating from more than one airport in Mexico City. Aeromexico chief executive Andres Conesa told FlightGlobal that the airline plans to consolidate its operations in the current airport.

"It's way too many," says Conesa of the three-airport system. "Ideally we want to stay in just one."

The carrier's substantial international network and its widebody operations will require Aeromexico to offer efficient connections, which would be difficult if passengers have to travel to a different airport miles away. Conesa welcomes the government's plan to improve the current airport, but warns that the solution will only offer relief for about five to seven years. "Is it enough for 10 to 15 years?" he says. "There will still be a need for infrastructure in the long run."

Conesa and Volaris chief executive Enrique Beltranena both indicate that flights out of Toluca have faced weak demand. Only Interjet and Viva Aerobus serve Toluca, which has links to five domestic destinations, Cirium schedules data show.

Aeromexico left the secondary airport in November 2017, while Volaris ended flights there in June 2018. Even though Volaris began operations in 2006 from Toluca, Beltranena says the airport has not lived up to financial expectations.

"What is the core market? Toluca has been there and will always be there," says Beltranena. "It has to be financially feasible."

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