Mexico Lurches Toward Making a Bad Airport Decision

MEX - Mexico City

I’ve linked to stories about the trouble with Mexico City’s new airport project a couple of times previously, but now it’s getting ugly enough that it warrants having its own post.  Mexico City is desperately in need of new airport capacity, and help was on the way.  But those plans are now in serious jeopardy, and a very poor plan has been proposed in its place.  I imagine we should know for sure in the next couple of months which way this will go.

Mexico City’s airport problems go back for years.  The current airport is in the city, hemmed in on all sides.  It was built to handle 32 million passengers, but it now handles nearly 50 percent more than that.  Slots are highly restricted, and there are two terminals that are on opposite sides of the airport from each other.  That makes connections difficult.  Considering that the broader metro area has more than 20 million people and is the largest metro area in the western hemisphere, a solution has to come about. This is a city that deserves a big airport.

After several false starts, a plan was settled upon.  Mexico City would build a giant new airport that would replace the current one entirely.  Money has poured into this project, and architectural designs were grand, to say the least.  With a $13 billion+ price tag, this airport was incredibly expensive and there was substantial opposition.

The new airport itself is built near Texcoco in what is today an empty area, or was an empty area as you can see in the photo above.  Why was it empty?  Well, dust off those history books and you’ll remember that Mexico City was once a city on a lake.  Centuries ago, efforts began to dry up the lakes and prevent catastrophic floods.  As efforts went forward, pockets of water remained, but they continued to shrink.  The area where the new airport is being built happens to be on top of one of one of the last lake remnants.  It’s only in the last couple of decades that it has dried up.

That may sound like an ideal spot, but there are issues with soil stability and with conservation efforts in one of the last unpopulated areas near the city.  Despite protests, the project has moved ahead.  It’s now about a third complete, and around $5 billion has been spent.

You’d think by this point that project would have been settled, but no.  In Mexico’s most recent presidential election, Andrés Manuel López Obrador rode the anti-airport sentiment to victory.  He promised he would halt construction and look elsewhere for airport capacity.

Shortly after being elected, it seems he realized this was a bad idea.  To avoid the political fallout however, he decided to put it to a vote.  Let the Mexican people decide if they want the new airport or not, and then the president-elect could deflect all blame regardless of the outcome.  

The vote was held last week, and it was a farce.  A referendum along these lines isn’t something that’s part of Mexican politics.  The implementation was sloppy, to say the least.  It was suggested that polling places were stacked in locations that were known to have people in favor of scrapping the project.  There were also reports of people voting multiple times.  Very few Mexicans actually voted, but the result from that small sample was a mandate to stop the project from moving forward.

What would this mean if it happens?  The new president says he wants to build up Toluca, far out to the west, and add runways to a military base, Santa Lucía, in the north for commercial service.  Along with the current airport, this would create more capacity, albeit in a three airport system. That’s not a feasible option, and it will instead split local traffic, depriving the creation of a strong hub at a single large airport.  It also wouldn’t save the area around Texcoco from development.  So much of the infrastructure has already been laid down that it will just be a hugely expensive white elephant.  We haven’t even talked about the financial ramifications from halting a project with a lot of debt on it.

All hope is not lost.  After all, López Obrador hasn’t even taken office yet.  That happens December 1.  Until then, the outgoing president has vowed to keep building as planned.  When the new president takes over, he will undoubtedly have to deal with all sorts of lawsuits before any new plan could be put into place.

Unless López Obrador has a change of heart, Mexico City will continue to suffer from a lack of airport capacity for years to come.  The presented solutions, whenever they can be implemented, won’t solve the issues at hand. 

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20 comments on “Mexico Lurches Toward Making a Bad Airport Decision

  1. Everything I’ve read about this airport project says López Obrador is opposed because of the corruption involved — as if corruption doesn’t make the world go ’round. At least in a certain other North American country just to the north, corruption is done more discreetly. For a graphic representation of how things are done in the good ol’ USA, I refer you to the B. Kliban cartoon “Business on Parade.”

    1. It also seems that López Obrador’s alternative proposals involve even more graft than the currently under construction airport. MEX really needs capacity and now it’s choices are a bad location and questionable, but supposedly fixed ongoing construction or eating over $5B in sunk costs to go with an even worse alternatives.

      If the new President had actually wanted to relook at the decision and provided an actually better alternate then perhaps it would have been worthwhile, but the proposed alternative is even worse.

      1. All of which should surprise no one. As my grandfather is supposed to have said, “It’s not about who gets the votes, it’s about who gets the graft.” I’m often sorry I never met the man. I was brought up to believe that anyone who actively wants to hold an elected office should be closely questioned on his/her motives.

        1. “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

  2. Much of this will pass and the airport will be built. As with most changes of administrations in Mexico, the new palms must be greased.

    Interesting side note: the planned Yucatan peninsula train project proceeds. Previously cost: $3.2 Billion. But AMLO wants to double it – $6-8 Billion! Maybe he’s a Governor Moonbeam disciple when it comes to rail boondoggles?

  3. Aside from places like China, Dubai, Korea it seems building a large airport is tantamount to moving mountains. We all know the sagas of places like JFK, LGA, LAX or the politics of an MCI but across the pond in Berlin things are no better – and that’s the Germans. Unless we’re talking Asia I just expect an airport project is going to come with all kinds of problems and delays.

    1. Jeremy – The move isn’t until the end of the year. The airport opened last week, but they just have a few short-haul flights operating so far.

  4. Cranky, you overlooked the serious environmental concerns. The new airport could dramatically increase flooding or sinking of existing city. There is a reason that that land has never been developed. The Santa Lucia option is probably cheaper, even considering the $5b in sunk costs. The existing airport could revert to a Sao Paulo Congonhas/Guarulhos relationship with Santa Lucia. When the new airport was planned, the military was much more powerful and was unwilling to part with Santa Lucia but now, their political power has diminished.

  5. Cranky!!! I am thoroughly disappointed you did not point out Godzilla’s Mexican cousins home in the map.. :(

  6. not finishing Texcoco will keep mexico as a 3rd world nation…IFALPA has rated MMMX as a a hot (meaning un-safe) airport…like the old UIO or TGU…I have flown in there many times and think it is a high accident prone airport…mexicana 27 dead…western 72 dead, aeronaves del peru 3 dead…and about 10 other hull loses

  7. It seems like the current plan should continue, money has already been poured into the project, its taking shape and is employing so many people…..seems to me that scraping this and then spend who knows how much on 2 other airports is silly, so MEX would have 3 airports vs 1 brand new up to date airport that can handle all the current traffic plus a big increase in new traffic and if im looking at the map correctly, closer to the city….the in coming president should just say he was wrong by wanting to stop the project and move on with 1 new airport that is badly needed and move on(or is it wrong for a politician to say he was wrong) In my opinion if you have 3 airports, which one is each airline going to choose, unless they plan to close the current airport and force airlines to make a choice….

  8. Wait, so vote like your life depends on it, and question votes when the results don’t meet your own expectations of reasonable. (And yes, it looks like there might be some basis to question this vote.)

  9. How is ground accessibility to the new airport? Rail connection to the metro? I believe I’m correct in generalizing that the middle / affluent demographic lives on the western half of the city. Having to commute for parts like Santa Fe to the new airport seems quite arduous, enough so for non-int’l flights they’d prefer Toluca.

    1. James – They haven’t thought through any of this, so I can’t imagine ground transport has even been addressed. I bet they’ll just throw them buses on the route and call it a day.

      1. The middle / affluent demographic there are unlikely to throw themselves on buses to cross town in Mexico City. The truly affluent may have a driver. The rest are more likely to take an uber, not even a taxi these days.

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