The first time Heriberto heard of a new airport for Mexico City was during the Mexico Olympics in 1968. His father, a pilot for Aeronaves de México – now Aeroméxico – was enthusiastic about the idea of a new airport nearby. to the area of Arboledas, in the State of Mexico, where he lived with his family. At that time, the tentative location was Zumpango, and the problem lay in meeting the requirements of the Olympic delegation rather than saturation.
“There was a project signed and authorized to make a change of location, not so much because of traffic saturation, but because the city was eating it [the Mexico City International Airport (AICM)], it was growing a lot around it ”, recalls Heriberto Salazar Eguiluz, currently president of the College of Aviator Pilots of Mexico.
That was the first in a long list of projects that would only get bigger as the years went by. Between 1968 and 2014, at least 11 alternatives have been evaluated to build a new airport for Mexico City, or expand the capabilities of the AICM itself.
While at the end of the 1960s the bet was a new airport in Zumpango, by 1970 it was evaluated to extend the current AICM to the northwest with two runways that would occupy the sanitary landfills at that time. Even the Texcoco option was evaluated for the first time in 1979, and Santa Lucía had a previous study in 1993 as a substitution alternative, which implied the closure of the AICM.
So why hasn’t Mexico City had a new airport in more than 50 years, even after more than a dozen studies? Beyond geographical or budgetary problems –which have been determining factors in some cases–, specialists consider that everything has been reduced to budgetary issues at the beginning, and more recently of a political nature.
Texcoco and Santa Lucía, alternatives since the 70s
In 1968, within the requirements of the National Olympic Committee was to improve the airport infrastructure of Mexico City to host the 1968 Olympic Games, for which the Zumpango option was evaluated, says Juan Antonio José Pacheco, consulting partner of JJ & Global Consulting and delegate in Mexico of ITA Aérea.
However, the size of the problem was relatively minor when compared to the abrupt growth that AICM air traffic would have in the following decades. While in 1968 there were just over 3 million passengers per year, according to data from Airports and Auxiliary Services (ASA), by 2014 the saturation reached the airport with a traffic of more than 45 million users, which would even exceed 50 million in 2019.
But the option of building two parallel runways at Zumpango with a simultaneous operation and a transversal runway, which would generate a capacity of approximately 19 million passengers and 300,000 operations per year by 1991, was discarded, and instead it was decided to modernize the AICM. . “The Benito Juárez received some cosmetic improvements, and Zumpango was discarded, which ironically was close to where Santa Lucía is today,” says José Pacheco.
By 1970, the Olympic purpose was passed to what ASA describes as the “first great saturation” of the AICM. Between 1970 and 1980, the airport went from 99,552 operations to 230,330, an increase of 129%. In a parallel way, it went from having 3.3 million in 1970 to 12.2 million in 1980, almost three times more.
“Naturally, the red alerts went off. Those who at the time considered that a new airport was an unnecessary expense, now caused scandal in the press, radio and television”, says Manuel Ruiz Romero in the book 50 years of Airports and Auxiliary Services (ASA) . “They accused the aeronautical authorities of lack of foresight for allowing these figures to be reached without having carried out a comprehensive expansion of the AICM when there were still spaces for a parallel runway and its terminal, for simultaneous operations.”
At this time, two alternatives that would prevail for the next 40 years entered the discussion: the Santa Lucía military air base, and Texcoco.
On the one hand, in 1978 the Ministry of Communications and Transportation planned to use the Santa Lucía military air base – which had begun operations in 1952 – as a complement to commercial flights, with a project in which they planned to invest between 600 and 700 million. of pesos of the time to adapt the aerodrome.
“After numerous studies and analyses, the conclusion was reached that, as a short-term temporary solution, the most technically and economically feasible is to enable the Santa Lucía military air base to provide service to general aviation,” said Roberto Zapata. Leal, then technical deputy director of Civil Aeronautics.
Similarly, in 1979, the General Directorate of Airports of the then Secretariat of Human Settlements and Public Works (SAHOP) presented an airport project on the Texcoco basin.
Despite the existence of two projects, specialists consider that the economic crisis of 1976 made it difficult for any of them to materialize, which is why in 1979 it was decided to launch a remodeling of the AICM. A new economic crisis in 1982 led to an even more challenging environment to allocate budget resources for a new airport.
For the 1990s, other alternatives were considered, such as building an airport in Tizayuca –which would once again be a possibility by 2000–, and even the coexistence of the AICM with other airports, such as in Puebla in 1993. However, Santa Lucía and Texcoco remained in the catalog of options.
“There is something that we have said for several years. If you see the IATA airport design manual, it tells you that you have to take into account what the needs of the city are in order to build the airport that suits them; Texcoco satisfied the needs of a city of 20 million inhabitants. When you want to put everything else, it generates a bad paleative”, considers Salazar Eguiluz.
“Santa Lucia was always seen as an option,” says José Pacheco. “It’s not necessarily a bad place to have a civil or military airfield; the problem is that it is territorially limited to reach that critical mass required by the demand for air transportation, one of the largest in the world”, he says.
The cancellation of Texcoco and what is coming for Santa Lucía
By the early 2000s, the alternative for a new airport was first discussed between Tizayuca and Texcoco.
Although the administration of Vicente Fox decided on the second option, the repression against the demonstrations that have been held since 2001 by ejidatarios from towns such as Tocuila, Nexquipayac and San Salvador Atenco, ended up burying the project, because in a police operation by order of the President Enrique Peña Nieto against the residents in 2006, the commission of crimes such as sexual abuse, torture and home invasions, among others, was recorded. This led to a stagnation of the work.
The Texcoco project was revived by the Felipe Calderón administration and finalized by Peña Nieto, who in 2014 presented the New Mexico International Airport (NAIM) project. However, after Andrés Manuel López Obrador assumed the mandate in 2018, and in the face of accusations of delays and corruption regarding the NAIM, dating back to his campaign, a popular consultation was held that led to the cancellation of the project in 2018, a process that cost more than 113,000 million pesos, according to an adjusted estimate of the Superior Audit of the Federation (ASF).
This is where the Felipe Ángeles International Airport (AIFA) comes in, which initially projects an operation with three runways -two civilians and one military-, a capacity of 19.5 million passengers per year and more than 119,000 operations per year, and that for its maximum stage in 2052, it seeks to serve up to 84.9 million passengers with four runways and more than 484,000 annual operations.
For Salazar Eguiluz, the project is insufficient when compared to the NAIM for its passenger capacity, since the Texcoco project would have a maximum capacity of 130 million passengers, in addition to being able to accommodate more than 1 million annual operations, which the AIFA seeks to overcome hand in hand with the AICM and the Toluca International Airport.
“Even closing the AICM and sending all the flights to Santa Lucía, it is not even half of what Texcoco was going to be in number of operations,” he says.
To date, Aeroméxico, Viva Aerobus and Volaris have confirmed their operation at AIFA with two routes each, to Mérida and Villahermosa; Guadalajara and Monterrey, and Cancun and Tijuana, respectively.
For Gerardo Herrera, an academic at the Universidad Iberoamericana, the AIFA will have two main challenges at its start: attracting airlines – which, in turn, attract passengers – and inspiring trust among a user public divided by using the airport. And at the moment, its strategy seems to be a bet on some segments that might not give the necessary volumes to make the operations profitable.
“Airlines are setting up high-traffic routes (such as Cancún and Guadalajara) hoping that part of what they have in the AICM can be diverted to this airport, and the other is that they are betting on a low-price segment, on that user who be willing to take two or even three hours to get to an airport because it costs less,” he explains.
In addition to this, the president of the College of Pilots sees more particular challenges such as the lack of confirmation of instruments for low visibility operations.
“In AIFA there is much more fog than in Mexico. Approximations are not published; I don’t know if their low visibility lights work, because we asked for them in writing and they never answered us. If you are unlucky enough to have fog on Monday, the flight does not take off, and if there is low visibility on an approach, they send you to an alternate airport, which cannot be the AICM according to AFAC’s own manuals,” he asserts.
For José Pacheco, the AIFA has an additional challenge: dividing the market with the AICM, which could keep it with a very limited demand, to which the Government could respond with actions to transfer operations from the AICM to the AIFA, as suggested by the SICT Undersecretary of Transportation, Rogelio Jiménez Pons, and President López Obrador himself.
“It has to be attractive to demand, and that is the result of many factors: distance, rate, quality, etc. The biggest challenge for Santa Lucía is to compete with the AICM, because as long as it remains an option, it is difficult for it to be justified commercially”, he concludes.