Mexico’s New International Airport Is Not Quite Ready for Takeoff

Mexico’s president inaugurated the first of a series of long-promised infrastructure projects — possibly a little too soon.

MEXICO CITY — It is almost impossible to find water to drink throughout the entire, spanking new airport. The unfinished access roads still need signs, compelling confused drivers to reverse down the freeway. The only transnational flight scheduled for the foreseeable future is from Venezuela.

With much fanfare and few logistical considerations, the Felipe Ángeles International Airport, north of Mexico City, was unveiled on Monday, the first of many large-scale infrastructure projects that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador promised to deliver before his six-year term ends in 2024.

The airport’s opening might seem premature, but it comes just weeks before a referendum on whether the president should step down well in advance of the end of his mandatory single term. Mr. López Obrador appeared eager to deliver on at least one of those promised projects before the vote. “It’s a work of the people,” Mr. López Obrador said at the inaugural ceremony, as supporters chanted “yes he could!”

The airport’s long-term success could significantly influence the prospects of the party he started roughly a decade ago, Morena. But for now, the airport, like many of the president’s big-ticket projects, may not offer as many economic or political benefits as he hopes.

The projects include a giant new oil refinery, which would be coming at a time when production is falling for the state-owned petroleum company, and the Tren Maya, a train that will take tourists from the beaches of Cancún deep into the Yucatán Peninsula.

“These infrastructure projects are not viable and will be subsidized by the government for years to come,” said Denise Dresser, a prominent political scientist and columnist based in Mexico City.

Marco Ugarte/Associated Press

Some analysts are more optimistic. Rogelio Rodríguez Garduño, a professor of aeronautical law at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México who wrote Mexico’s current civil aviation law, says the new airport could eventually become profitable if it focuses on becoming a hub for low-cost carriers.

Mr. López Obrador came to power in 2018, in a fire-and-brimstone campaign focused on the deep-seated corruption of past governments. He claimed that his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto, had stolen his victory during the 2012 presidential election. Although the vote was close, international observers said that Mr. Peña Nieto had won fairly.

Known for holding grudges, Mr. López Obrador stopped the construction of an airport that Mr. Peña Nieto conceived — located closer to Mexico City — although the government had already spent some $3 billion and completed about 30 percent of that project. It was meant to be a hub for the region, the Heathrow Airport of Latin America, with a total price tag of $13 billion. But Mr. López Obrador said that Mr. Peña Nieto’s airport was “a big heist” that was being built in “the worst location.” His alternative airport would be in the right place and cost a lot less, a symbol of the austerity he championed.

Although Mr. Lopez Obrador initially said Felipe Ángeles would cost about $3.7 billion, the government has recently earmarked $2 billion for the project. Much remains to be done and spending could rise further.

Carlos Jasso/Reuters

While many analysts agree with Mr. López Obrador that corruption has been endemic in past administrations — and have applauded his government for its lack of serious scandals — they believe that canceling the previous airport project was a mistake.

Felipe Ángeles was built on a military air base by the Mexican army and will operate two runways for commercial use, compared to the five planned for in Mr. Peña Nieto’s government. The new airport will accommodate 20 million passengers annually, compared to the 125 million that the scrapped airport had been designed to handle, which would have made it the second largest in the world.

Instead of building one airport for Mexico City to accommodate domestic and international flights — as the original project had envisioned — Felipe Ángeles will work in tandem with the capital’s existing airport, which is overburdened and aging.

But beyond the plaque hanging above the terminal, there is little evidence that Felipe Ángeles will soon be a global hub.

Currently, Mexican carriers are not able to fly from Felipe Ángeles to the United States after the Federal Aviation Administration downgraded its air safety rating for Mexico last year. Air industry experts have also warned that the mountains surrounding Felipe Ángeles could make takeoff and landing dangerous.

So far, a handful of Mexican carriers announced that they will operate a few domestic flights from Felipe Ángeles, while the only international airline to commit is the Venezuelan carrier Conviasa.

Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Felipe Ángeles is about 30 miles from Mexico City, the roads leading to it are incomplete and the unfinished rail line linking the airport to the capital will not open until 2023. That will make it difficult for passengers flying from elsewhere in Mexico to land at Felipe Ángeles and then take the long journey to the current international airport for a connecting flight abroad. It could take up to three hours to reach Felipe Ángeles from the capital, known for its chockablock traffic.

The first major infrastructure project to be delivered, Felipe Ángeles was supposed to showcase the capability and thriftiness of the government just weeks before a national referendum on whether the president should complete his six-year term. The referendum, proposed by Mr. López Obrador, is anticipated to have a light turnout, with his supporters expected to show up and his detractors to stay home.

Critics say some of the projects may turn out to be white elephants — unviable pet projects. If they fail, it will likely be after Mr. López Obrador inaugurates them, cuts the red ribbon and steps down, his term ending in 2024.

A candidate from Morena, the party the president founded, is expected to clinch the next national election. If the projects prove unsuccessful it will likely be on the next government’s watch, analysts say, possibly leaving Mr. López Obrador free of blame.

At Monday’s inauguration, thousands of Mr. López Obrador’s supporters arrived to cheer the president on. Traditional bands played Mexican tunes, while several people searched vainly for a connection to make calls or send text messages from the remote airport.

Hector Vivas/Getty Images

The president lambasted his critics and hailed the airport’s success. Mr. López Obrador still remains one of the world’s most popular leaders, with an approval rating that has hovered above 60 percent since he took office in 2018, though it has slipped recently as Mexico has battled an economic slowdown.

Mr. López Obrador’s supporters hail him for being a down-to-earth leader, a rare president who listens to the average Mexican and is concerned with the well-being of the underclass.

“You see it, you feel it, AMLO is present!” supporters chanted at Monday’s airport inauguration, using a nickname for Mr. López Obrador.

Ana Sosa and Anatoly Kurmanaev contributed reporting from Mexico City.

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