Reviews | Mexico City’s distant and disappointing new airport is already facing headwinds

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In October 2018, before officially becoming President of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador decided to halt construction of Mexico City’s new international airport, which had begun under the previous administration. López Obrador had tried to validate this controversial step with a hastily organized referendum – called “consultation” – in which just over a million people took part, or about 1% of the country’s electorate.

Mexico’s business sector has expressed concerns about the impact of the abrupt cancellation on the country’s finances and its prospects as an investment destination. (The warning would prove prescient.) López Obrador went ahead anyway. It didn’t matter that a third of the multi-billion dollar project had already been completed or that stopping it would entail astronomical costs.

The termination of the massive airport has left a gaping hole, especially given Mexico City’s transportation problems. The current terminal is operating beyond capacity and suffers from chronic infrastructure issues. It sinks slowly. The need to replace it, or at least lighten its operational load, led to the development of the larger and more ambitious airport that López Obrador abandoned.

López Obrador’s answer to this dilemma has been his own infrastructure behemoth: Felipe Ángeles International Airport (AIFA), 27 miles north of Mexico City’s congested center. The plan was to expand and reuse an existing military base for commercial purposes. In one of many recent overtures to the country’s armed forces—controversial, for a supposedly progressive president—López Obrador commissioned the military to build the airport. Carried out in haste and beyond its initial budget, it now faces reports opacity and corruption.

On Monday, López Obrador inaugurated the new terminal. The hyperbole was not lacking. Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum seemed at a loss for words. “It’s amazing. Truly extraordinary,” she said. “The detractors should… see with their own eyes how magnanimous [sic] this job is. Producer Epigmenio Ibarra, a loyalist, has released an hour-long documentary, a hymn to López Obrador and the Mexican military, reminiscing about another era of Mexico’s fascination with presidential power.

Propaganda aside, Mexico City’s new airport faces considerable challenges if it is to become a solution for the capital and, more importantly, a powerhouse for the country’s tourism industry. Critics have been fierce, especially when comparing the capacity of the extinguished project with the concrete limitations of López Obrador’s AIFA. “The Mexican government canceled a 21st century airport, with six runways and advanced versatility for operation, and instead built a bus terminal with two runways,” analyst Jorge Suárez Vélez told me. “It was the most expensive tantrum in Mexican history.”

The first few days at the airport were disappointing at best. It began operations with just a handful of flights, including its first international arrival, to Venezuela from Nicolás Maduro. It must quickly multiply its capacity to become profitable. Even then, according to financial expert Enrique Quintana, AIFA could only reach the size of one of the country’s mid-tier terminals in cities like Mérida. If he manages to develop, that’s good.

It could be difficult.

One of the main obstacles is the airport’s current lack of modern and efficient connectivity. Right now, says Suárez Vélez, the new terminal “only connects to the ego of a president who doesn’t understand tourism or supply chains.”

The truth is, in a metropolitan area like Mexico City, going 30 miles for a flight could be torture. On opening day, López Obrador tried to prove doubters wrong by taking the hike early in the morning. It took him about 40 minutes – at 5 am on a public holiday. Passengers will likely take at least double that to catch a mid-morning flight. The rush hour commute could be a job-like test of patience.

All of this would be anecdotal if the country’s future as a travel hub weren’t at stake. For years, tourism has been crucial to Mexico’s economy. A modern and vibrant terminal would have done wonders for the country’s myriad destinations. Time will tell how tourists will react to a 90-minute walk to the “magnanimous” new López Obrador airport.


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