News, features, and commentary from the biggest city in the Americas, Mexico City.
NOTE: Here’s the link to our NEW story of Sept 3 2014. The piece below was published in Feb 2013.
What do you do when your existing airport reaches capacity, and expansion of this airport becomes almost impossible?
How about build a new one?
Well, this has apparently been on the “Things To Do This Century” list for government officials in Mexico City and at the federal level for quite some time. (No exaggeration — the idea of building a new airport goes back as far as the late 1960’s).
But despite an ever-increasing urgency to solve the problems with the Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez / Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX, aka, Aerpuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México, or AICM), this permanent solution appears just as far away from becoming reality as ever.
Newly-released statistics show that the airport served 29.5 million passengers in 2012 — a 12% increase over 2011 numbers, and a new record for the country’s busiest airport.
Varying estimates put the airport’s capacity somewhere around 30 million passengers, so for all intents and purposes, the facility has reached its limit.
A Plan to Solve the Problem Meets with Resistance
There was hope — about 11 years ago — that this issue would have been solved by now. During the presidency of President Vicente Fox (2000-2006), plans were laid for the construction of a new airport to be built in the Texcoco area, in suburban Estado de Mexico.
This would have situated the capital’s primary airport about 25 km (15 miles) to the northeast of its current location, which is just 5 km (3 miles) east of Zócalo.
Notwithstanding it being a less convenient location, an airport in Texcoco would have solved the problem that can’t be overcome at the existing facility — the fact that the airport as it exists now is surrounded by city, something that wasn’t true when flights first began here.
But serious — and violent — opposition (including hostage taking) from local landowners in Texcoco in 2002 put an end to this possible new home for the new Mexico City International. The Fox administration cancelled the project later that year.
The simple problem at MEX is that the airport has no room for further expansion. Air service has been operating in one form or another at the current location dating back as far as the 1920’s (though the more modern main terminal has been in existence since 1952), but back then, the city had not yet grown to surround the airport as it does today.
A temporary fix arrived in November 2007, with the opening of Terminal 2, which is used by Aeromexico, Copa, LAN, and Delta AirLines. This freed up valuable space in Terminal 1 for all the other carriers.
That helped the issue of crowding inside the terminal itself, and brought much needed additional gates for aircraft (33 at T1, plus 23 new ones at T2), though “remote” positions (i.e., you deplane on the tarmac, and are shuttled to the terminal) are still in use at both terminals (17 at T1, plus 18 at T2), attesting to the lack of space at both terminals.
The larger problem though, is the current runway configuration. The airport’s two narrow parallel runways (05L/23R and 05R/23L) were built too close together, meaning simultaneous takeoffs and landings are not permitted.
As a result, runway use is almost at full capacity — over 97%. This doesn’t leave much room for the addition of many new flights.
It’s ironic that this big airport has just two functioning runways, because it once had FIVE runways!
But during the unfortunate — some would say “disastrous” — presidency of Luís Echeverría (1970-76), the government closed the three shorter runways (13/31, 14/32, and 05E).
The land where runways 14/32 and 05E existed is still part of the current airfield, though houses were built over part of the old runway 13/31.
The Echeverría administration studied relocation of the airport, but ultimately did nothing.
The Impossible, or a Lack of Political Will
Reconstructing the runways and airfield layout within the current confines of the airport land seems to be off the table as an option. Any attempt at a runway reconfiguration would likely require the need to expand the airport boundaries.
In other words, they’d have to buy out a lot of landowners in the perimeter around the airport, just to have the extra space needed for a more effective runway configuration. But there has not been any indication on the part of government officials that this is an option they’re considering.
On the contrary, when speaking at a tourism conference in recent days, Mexico City mayor Miguel Ángel Mancera reiterated the need for a new — not reconfigured — airport for the capital. (Heavy automobile traffic surrounding the airport was also pointed to as a key concern with the existing facility.)
In his comments, Mancera also indicated that they’re still at the stage of studying where they would put the new facility.
Understandably, finding suitable land somewhere around this giant metropolis is not easy. And regardless of the location, the matter of buying out the landowners — as President Fox found out — is likely to be a messy situation.
In any event, this is a political decision, and Mexican politicians have been showing little willingness to deal with the situation.
In politics, there’s always the tendency to take the path of least resistance, and to postpone decisions on tough issues in order to avoid making any difficult (though necessary) decisions that may cost one political support.
For that reason, I give credit to President Fox for making a serious attempt to fix the problem. His successor, Felipe Calderon, made no visible attempts to even address the issue. And though the Terminal 2 project opened under Calderon, it was an initiative of the Fox administration.
The A380 Cannot Fly to Mexico City — Yet
In the midst of these ongoing issues, we have to realize that Mexico City International’s limitations mean it is not even equipped to handle some big aircraft. Specifically, the Airbus A380.
According to reports, both Lufthansa and Air France have expressed interest in flying their A380 jets to Mexico, from their respective hubs in Frankfurt and Paris.
There were some in the Mexican press who even hailed this expression of interest last fall as “news”.
Not so fast.
The reality is, before any airline can fly this plane here, the airport will need to make some infrastructure upgrades. Aside from ensuring there are wide enough taxiways to handle the A380, the airport also needs bigger gate areas, and the ability to load and unload passengers from two levels. One jetway is not sufficient for this jumbo jet.
Whenever they do get around to starting this work, Terminal 2 will be used to receive the A380.
And the price tag, according to estimates (which no doubt will rise), has been pegged at around USD $27 million. For now.
And when might the airport be ready? The same premature reports trumpeting the arrival of the A380 say we’re looking at the end of 2014. And again, I add that this is a best-case scenario. So don’t expect anything for a while.
Toluca to the Rescue
In the meantime, while we wait and wait for action on a new airport, we’re left with one genuine option — Mexico City’s defacto alternate airport, Adolfo López Mateos International Airport (TLC), located just west of the city in Toluca.
This smaller airport, a short distance from Mexico City’s western suburbs, handles a considerable volume of cargo traffic and private aircraft. In terms of commercial flights, the airport got a big boost when low-cost airlines Interjet and Volaris started up operations in 2005-06, and selected the airport as their Mexico City-area base.
But despite Toluca’s lower costs, both carriers began shifting flights to MEX (especially following Mexicana’s bankruptcy in 2010), and it was starting to look like TLC would disappear from the commercial aviation map. (See our story from last fall, The Case of the Disappearing Airport.)
However, in just the space of months, events have again begun to conspire in Toluca’s favor.
Faced with the overcrowding situation at MEX, Aeromexico announced that it was returning to Toluca. (Our story on the return of Aeromexico.)
The nation’s largest carrier briefly operated some flights in Toluca a few years ago, but quickly abandoned the airport completely.
But as of February 25, the airline will take flight again at TLC, offering service to Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Cancún. Flights to Acapulco begin March 1, and the carrier also has plans to launch service to Atlanta.
Given the problem of finding the land where you could build an airport, it would seem that building up Toluca is the best way for Mexico City to deal with the need for airport expansion.
First, the airport already exists, and a number of upgrades to their facilities have been made in the past few years. This means flights can operate right now — not some unknown date many years into the future, as would be the case with a brand new airport.
The airport has just one runway at present, but it’s longer than Mexico City’s two runways, and is capable of receiving wide-body aircraft. And really, how different is Toluca with one runway, when Mexico City International has two runways, only one of which can be used at a time? Besides, Toluca could construct a second parallel runway if required, with little need to expand the existing airfield.
As it is, TLC is handling 250 flight operations a day (about 200 of which are civil aviation flights), but it has the capacity to handle up to 500 operations per day. That’s a significant room for growth that Mexico City International does not have.
Airport officials say they have the ability to handle eight million passengers per year. Given that only 972,414 passengers used TLC in 2012 (a sharp drop from the airport’s peak of 4.3 million in 2008), this means this facility has the ability to welcome many more flights and passengers before needing to do more upgrades.
Second, consider the issue of transportation. Getting to and from Toluca is no more difficult than it would be getting to Texcoco, or any other site far out in suburban Estado de Mexico. There’s already regular shuttle service between Toluca and various points within the Distrito Federal, and the travel times are not unreasonable.
And on that note, you can get to/from MEX via the city’s Metro (subway) system. Would this be true at a hypothetical new airport much farther out from the city? Would the Metro be extended? Would there be some sort of new light rail service? Who knows.
On the few occasions that I’ve taken Interjet’s shuttle from Toluca to the World Trade Center, the trip has taken about 50 minutes (this during typical traffic conditions). Taking a taxi from MEX will cost you more than the Toluca shuttles charge, and on top of that, you can easily spend a lot more than 50 minutes in traffic just getting around by taxi, depending where you’re going.
So, on the transportation front, Toluca is not as disadvantaged as some would have you believe.
One possible issue with Toluca is that of connecting flights. If Mexico City is just a connecting airport for you, then Toluca probably isn’t a good option for you.
But Toluca can function very well for simple point-to-point service within the country, which is largely what is happening there now. Non-connecting service is what Interjet, Volaris, and VivaAerobus specialize in, so Toluca works for them. (VivaAerobus, by the way, begins its first two routes out of Toluca in March.)
And though Aeromexico has a bigger network that it likes to connect through its MEX hub, the carrier does move a lot of point-to-point customers to/from key destinations, most notably the business centers of Monterrey and Guadalajara, as well as those going to vacation destinations like Cancun and Acapulco. So even Aeromexico has a lot of flying it can do at Toluca.
Had the Texcoco project gone through as planned, construction would have begun in 2003, with flight operations beginning in 2007, and the eventual complete closure of the current airport occurring by 2014.
Based on this timetable — hypothetically speaking, of course — even if a new suitable location for a brand new Mexico City International were to be found this year, realistically, it would still be many, many years before any of us could take flight at this mythical airport.
And in the meantime? I expect we’ll see a greater buildup in Toluca. More flights from Aeromexico, and probably more from the country’s three low-cost carriers as well. It’s really the only alternative we have.
And having used Toluca’s airport a number of times, I have to say that it’s not a bad option at all.