Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (herein AMLO or El Peje) announced last week that work would begin Monday, April 29 to convert a military air base outside Mexico City for commercial aviation. When multiple sources jumped to point out that neither the master plan nor the required environmental impact assessment had been presented, the aggravated president agreed to push back start of work until June. If this barmy caper has a happy ending we will be a monkey’s uncle, but Dear Leader is determined so it looks like we will find out.
To recap, the existing Mexico City airport is woefully overburdened and is operating dangerously above maximum capacity. To address this crisis, the previous administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto launched construction of a colossal new capital city airport that would make the Temples of Abu Simbel look like a Shake Shack. Upon taking office in December 2018, however, AMLO canceled the partially constructed facility and announced a hodgepodge solution that included retrofitting the Santa Lucía air base, keeping the existing airport and diverting some traffic to other regional airports. The business sector wailed and gnashed its teeth over the canceled construction contracts but it appears that the government has come to an agreement with bond holders and contractors, prompting AMLO to announce commencement of shovels.
The president argued that the tender process for the previous government’s mega-airport (referred to as NAICM) was fraught with corruption, and we have no reason to believe this is not the case, although it does not distinguish this particular public work from any other previous large projects that were brought to fruition. If López Obrador’s own pharaonic Maya Train, Dos Bocas refinery and trans-isthmus corridor projects are carried out without any dodgy contracts, we will be well impressed. Opponents of the NAICM also argued that its construction on top of wetlands would have grave consequences for the city’s water table, climate and greenhouse gases, as well as requiring extensive and costly maintenance. Independent of misgivings over the now-canceled NAICM, there has never been any observable consensus over the feasibility of the new government’s scattershot solution. AMLO also said last week that the master plan for the Santa Lucía airport will be ready this week, which is fortunate considering he said construction would begin on Monday. Airlines are balking at what they consider will be increased operating costs of separating operations between two airports, or three if flights are also rerouted to the nearby Toluca airport, as AMLO has proposed. Separating the location of domestic and international flights will also create challenges for connecting flights, considering the current Mexico City airport is the country’s largest hub for connections. Ecologically, analysts appear to be divided with regard to Santa Lucía, with some claiming the project will threaten birds and lakes in the area, and supporters of the government saying impact will be minimal.
Our concern about the three-airport system is that the project follows the same pattern as previous failed proposals criticized by AMLO – it was summarily announced as a fait accompli, after which plans were thrown together in the midst of raging dispute. This is the same game plan followed by Presidents Vicente Fox in 2001, Enrique Peña Nieto in 2014 and now El Peje in 2018. President Felipe Calderón took a side road, inaugurating a second terminal at the existing airport that was actually begun during the Fox administration as a consolation prize following cancellation of Fox’s ill-fated new airport project. And now, as we type, the media is reporting that the government has announced they will build yet another new terminal, number 3, at the current Mexico City airport – The airport that needed to be replaced because it had no more room for expansion. This just in…we’re now seeing that the Grupo Aeroportuario de la Ciudad de México (GACM), the state-controlled owner of the Mexico City airport, is talking about throwing in a fourth terminal at the existing airport! Well, why not, since apparently developing transport policy for a city of 20 million is really just an ether-fueled hallucinatory dream-poem after all!
Seriously, we like smoking crack as much as the next fellow, but this approach to the airport situation is the textbook definition of willy nilly. We do not profess to be experts in airport design, public finance or urban planning, but every time AMLO pops up with a new idea out of left field we can’t help but picture Maxwell Smart asking, “Would you believe…?”, which is not a good look for public works requiring tens of billions of dollars in investment. Ultimately, we will be delighted to admit we were wrong if the continually evolving proposal turns out to be a visionary solution driven by innovative policy design. But that doesn’t look like the direction we’re headed in right now.