(Bloomberg) -- Shortly before taking office last year, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador upended construction of a $13 billion airport for the nation’s capital. The glitzy, modernist project was riddled with corruption, AMLO said, and congestion could be eased more cheaply with a plan that included improvements for the existing hub.
But now, just nine months later, the full extent of the risks to that plan are emerging. Mexico City’s airport has recorded a 52% increase in aborted landings in the first five months of the year, according to data obtained through a freedom of information request. Landings thwarted specifically because other planes were still on the runway at the overcrowded airport climbed even faster — by 84%.
While pilots are trained to safely handle go-arounds, as the maneuvers are known, the surge in frequency of such events is adding to operational headaches at Latin America’s busiest airport. What’s more, a key component to AMLO’s alternative plan -- diverting some commercial air traffic to a nearby military base -- is bogged down in Mexican courts. And even if it were to eventually win legal approval, industry experts say the plan has little chance of meeting the growing demand for runway space caused by the rise of budget airlines in Mexico.
“It’s an unnecessary risk factor,” said Guillermo Galvan, a private-jet pilot and safety instructor at Mexican aviation schools.
The airport didn’t respond to a request for comment. Mexico’s Communication and Transportation Ministry declined to comment.
Landing attempts can be scrubbed for a variety of reasons and they happen at all airports from time to time. Sudden changes in weather conditions have contributed to go-arounds in Mexico City in the past few months, said Gabriel Yee, Grupo Aeromexico SAB’s flight operations manager.
As for the congestion, the hub doesn’t have a policy known as “minimum runway use” to get planes out of the way quickly, Yee said.
“There’s no denying the airport has more operations than before,” he said in an interview. “This is the airport we have for the time being and there are ways to make it work more efficiently.”
Few other companies agreed to discuss the issue. American Airlines Group Inc., the biggest U.S. carrier on Latin America routes, said its flights haven’t been affected.
Big jets need more time to clear the runway and they sometimes don’t have enough time to do so, prompting other jets to abort landings, Galvan said. At an airport with few taxiways, planes crossing from a hangar to a gate sometimes needs to encroach on the busy runways.
Mexico City airport has two runways, but they can’t be used simultaneously because the distance between them is less than required. The hub handles 61 operations -- takeoffs or landings -- at peak times, and last year’s traffic climbed 6.6% to a record 47.7 million passengers.
Aborted landings are still extremely rare in Mexico City. But the incidence rose to six for every 1,000 landings in the first five months of the year, from four last year. That costs airlines time and jet fuel.
As a rule of thumb around the world, for every 1,000 landing attempts, anywhere from 1 to 3 will result in a go-around, said Richard Bloom, who teaches aviation security and global intelligence at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
The rise in Mexico City “minimally, should lead to a review of the typical factors involved in go-arounds,” Bloom said in an interview.
Of the airport’s 541 go-arounds from January through May, 83 were due to the presence of other aircraft on the runways. In the same period last year, there were 357 aborted landings, of which 45 were caused by obstructed runways. Reforma, a daily newspaper in Mexico City, earlier reported on the increase.
Over the past 20 years, every Mexican president has grappled with overcrowding at the capital’s airport, which was declared “saturated” by authorities in 2013. Enrique Pena Nieto’s administration even started construction in 2017 on the new airport, which was slated to handle as many as 68 million passengers a year by the time it opened in 2022.
But in October -- as Pena Nieto prepared to depart and Lopez Obrador had already been elected to succeed him -- the new leader canceled the partially-built hub, citing corruption concerns and a nationwide “consultation” that drew 1.07 million participants who mostly voted against the project.
Instead, Lopez Obrador plans to upgrade the current airport with a third terminal and outfit the Santa Lucia military airbase for commercial use. He also wants to add flights at an airport in Toluca, about 35 miles (58 kilometers) from downtown Mexico City -- although bad traffic can easily make the trip take an hour and a half.
A federal judge halted construction at Santa Lucia in June, citing the need for environmental studies and protections for cultural heritage sites. Lopez Obrador said the project is moving ahead, even if it’s delayed while authorities await the studies.
Aviation experts at Mitre Corp. have said increasing flights at Santa Lucia and Mexico City’s existing airport isn’t viable. Aeromexico Chief Executive Officer Andres Conesa said he shared similar concerns.
“We haven’t seen the analysis,” he said in an interview. “We’d like to see the ability to increase operations in this dual system. We prefer to have one airport because we’re under a hub-and-spoke model.”
Then there’s Toluca. The airport enjoyed moderate traffic when it opened in 2002, but that dwindled as airlines grew wary of the expense of operating from two airports.
“We stopped operating out of Toluca because of what it cost us,” Enrique Beltranena, CEO at discounter Controladora Vuela Cia de Aviacion, known as Volaris, told Bloomberg.
As for the president’s plan to revive it, Beltranena said, “We need more clarity in what costs it would represent.”
--With assistance from Mary Schlangenstein.
To contact the reporter on this story: Andrea Navarro in Mexico City at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Case at firstname.lastname@example.org, Susan Warren
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