AMLO and the Airport Wars

Screen Shot 2019-11-24 at 9.47.58 AMBy Julie Etra

Before I started assessing President Andrés Manual López Obrador’s management of the Mexico City and vicinity airports, my conversations about AMLO (as the President is better known) with Mexican citizens from many walks of life have been for the most part positive.   However, recent polls indicate a decline in support, most citing the continued cartel violence. 

One of the first things AMLO did upon being inaugurated in December 2018 was to cancel construction of the New International Airport at Texcoco, located about 6 kilometers from the existing over-capacity and chaotic Benito Juárez airport in Mexico City, also known as Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad México (AICM).  At the time, AMLO claimed the standard reasons for the cessation:  ubiquitous corruption, cost overruns, nepotism, political favors etc. The new airport was about 30% complete when construction was halted.  

AMLO’s strategy switched to construction of a new commercial airport at the existing Santa Lucia military air base at Zumpango in the state of México. The new airport is called Aeropuerto Internacional Felipe Ángeles, in recognition of General Felipe Ángeles Ramírez, who participated in supporting the new Francisco Madero government following the Revolution of 1910 (Madero was eventually overthrown; he and his Vice President were executed by a firing squad and Ángeles was sent into exile in France).  

This facility, about 54 kilometers by highway from AICM, is supposed to be completed in 2022 at 12% of the cost of the currently shuttered Texcoco project. The new airport is not meant to entirely replace AICM, but will relieve congestion and the two airports are intended to operate concurrently.  As President-Elect, AMLO had also proposed the expansion of the existing Licenciado Adolfo López Mateos International Airport at Toluca, located about 58 kilometers from AICM in the state of México.  

In addition to his initial objections to the new airport at Texcoco, AMLO also, quite recently, recognized the geotechnical problems involved with building the new facility on the bed of Lake Texcoco.  According to a colleague who is a civil engineer, the lakebed will continue to subside for up to 15 years, even with engineered fills and compacted lifts. This inland lake has never been completely drained, and at the time of the Spanish conquest the Valley of Mexico, called Anáhuac by the Aztecs, consisted of five lakes (Zumpango, Xaltocan, Xochimilco, Chalco, and the largest, Texcoco) and covered about 1,500 square kilometers (580 sq. mi.) of the basin floor, separated by small mountain ranges including the Sierra de Guadalupe and Mount Chiconautla but hydrologically interconnected. “If we had not made that decision, we would be troubled. Construction would not be feasible at the airport of Lake Texcoco, it was not the most appropriate site, on the contrary, it was the worst place, it is the area of ​​the Valley of Mexico, with more subsidence,” López Obrador said recently, assessing the project as “a very expensive, pharaonic work . . . fundamentally driven by private interests, by corruption.”

After months of litigation and 140 appeals by civil and business organizations to prevent the construction of the new Santa Lucia airport, construction has begun, but not without its own set of obstacles, primarily operational.  The airport is surrounded by mountains; take-offs and landings will be limited and one of the three runways will continue to be reserved for military operations.   

Despite the delays, AMLO promised to finish the Santa Lucia airport by 2021, with a tentative inauguration date for May 21, 2022. But beyond the political and legal conflict, some critics of the Santa Lucia airport project have pointed out some drawbacks such as the distance from the new terminal to Mexico City – at least a one-hour commute even without the perennial traffic. To resolve this problem, the government has proposed the construction of a 47-kilometer elevated highway to connect the Santa Lucia airport with AICM. 

And what about Toluca? There has been mention of expansion of a third facility at the Toluca airport, which is about a 1.5-hour drive without traffic from AICM. It already receives international flights from Caracas, Venezuela, and other domestic commercial flights. Airlines have indicated that managing flights from potentially three airports could cause connection problems and an increase in fares, which was noted by AMLO’s team in a document released in August 2018. A representative of American Airlines recently reaffirmed that operating out of more than one airport in the Mexico City vicinity was unacceptable and cited their close alliance with the Mexican airline Interjet.

There remains the question of what to do about the unfinished infrastructure and land development at the Texcoco site, and associated complex investments. According to my colleague, Mexico City will still eventually need an airport of its own, a new facility. Maybe after final subsidence, whenever and whatever that constitutes, has been achieved, the aborted project will be resurrected. ¡Vamos a ver! In the meantime, all of us who travel through AICM will continue to experience the challenging and constantly changing gates and security checks.  

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