In 2017, I published a post covering Mexico City’s ambitious new airport. At the time, readers outside of Mexico were likely unaware that Mexico City was building a new airport a few miles to the east of the city’s current overcrowded airport. The airport was extremely controversial and after over a decade of debate, protests, and even violence, construction began on what would become Mexico City’s next international airport. However, in 2019, the new Mexican president halted construction and announced that Mexico City’s new international airport would not be built on the current site. This was a popular move in the eyes of those living in Mexico City. However, the announcement did not put an end to Mexico City’s airport fiasco.
The new Mexican president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, or AMLO, announced that the new site of Mexico City’s new international airport would be a small military installation known as Santa Lucia Air Force Base. The motivation behind moving the site of the city’s new airport was both political and financial. The new site was free of the controversy of the current site and would, according to AMLO’s government, save the Mexican government billions of dollars. However, unlike the now abandoned site of the original new Mexico City International Airport, the new site at Santa Lucia Air Force Base is far from convenient and will likely fail to address overcrowding. Nevertheless, this didn’t prevent construction and development from moving forward at the Santa Lucia site.
Why Stop Construction at The Original New Mexico City Airport Site?
Before discussing why the Santa Lucia Air Force base site makes sense, it is important to discuss why the former Texcoco site failed to make sense. The original site for Mexico City’s new airport was never all that popular among those residing in the region. However, in 2014, then-President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that the site in Texcoco would host the new airport. The site had long been the target of previous administrations when discussing the development of the new Mexico City airport. In 2002, President Vicente Fox first announced that the Mexican government now owned the site. When plans were first announced for the new Mexico City airport, violent protests broke out.
The protests of the early 2002s resulted in months of conflict. At one time, local residents, referred to by major media outlets as “peasants”, took multiple hostages and blocked numerous roads throughout the city. These protests stemmed from disputes over who rightfully held claim to the land on which the new airport would be built. The final offer made by the Mexican government included a payout of $2,850 per acre of land to those who had claimed the land. However, the Mexican government, then controlled by President Fox, ended up canceling plans for a new airport entirely.
Since the violent protests that rocked the city in the early 2000s, the new Mexico City airport project remained unpopular. Concerns about the new project moving forward resulted in the formation of the Community Front in Defense of Land. The current status of the Community Front in Defense of Land remains unclear. However, in the past, the group had been aligned with and received support from the libertarian-socialist group Zapatista Army of National Liberation or EZLN for short.
EZLN is considered a militant group by the Mexican government and has been at odds with the Mexican Government and its military since its inception in the mid-1990s.
It is quite clear why the original site for the new Mexico City airport never quite made sense. While logistically speaking, it seemed like a practical location for a new mega-transportation hub, the site’s practicality stopped at logistics.
Nevertheless, under President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, construction began in 2014. A great deal of the airport, or rather the airport’s foundation, was built in the years following Peña Nieto’s decision to move forward with the project. Today, an outline of the airport’s terminal, runways, taxiways, and an air traffic control tower can be seen when departing the current Mexico City airport.
Photos: The Original Site for Mexico City’s Airport in Texcoco
So, why did construction stop? In short, politics resulted in the abrupt end to the construction of a new airport at the Texcoco site. The political landscape in Mexico is among one of the most complicated and complex in the Americas. However, the case of the new Mexico City airport and the politics that accompany the project is rather straightforward.
The Texcoco airport site was approved and construction went forward under President Enrique Peña Nieto. President Peña Nieto is a member of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional, or Institutional Revolutionary Party in English. In American politics, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is closer to the Democratic Party than the Republican Party. However, aspects of both American parties are evident in the PRI. Essentially, the PRI is a center to center-right big-tent party. The party, which was once the largest and most popular in the country, has lost a great deal of support as a result of numerous corruption scandals and failure to appeal to working-class Mexicans.
As a result, the left-leaning MORENA party took control of the Mexican presidency in 2018. This resulted in Mexico’s current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, assuming office.
Having run on a populist left-leaning platform, AMLO quickly took aim at low-hanging fruit throughout the country. One notable target of AMLO’s populist policies was the new Mexico City airport. At the time, construction was well underway at the Texcoco site. Nevertheless, construction was halted after the prospect of continued construction at the site was rejected in a non-binding referendum that had been organized by then President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
However, AMLO was not against a new Mexico City airport. Instead, the Mexican Government moved all efforts and funding away from the site in Texcoco and to a new site 27 miles north at a small military base.
Disclaimer: In the wake of recent comments from readers, I want to make it clear that this is an independent piece written by a writer with no ties to either project. We all hope that the new airport will be a success with a lasting impact on the region. However, there are aspects of the project that make it controversial. I will continue to monitor the progress of the project and will gladly report on future successes. Additionally, I encourage all readers to provide their thoughts on the project and even share new developments and information. – MP
The New Mexico City Airport: Felipe Ángeles International Airport
Construction at the Santa Lucia military base started in October 2019. Interestingly, while the private sector handled the construction at the Texcoco site, the Mexican Army was tasked with the construction at the Santa Lucia site. For the past 2 years, the Mexican military, also known as SEDENA, has been working around the clock to prepare the new airport for opening day.
As of December 19, 2021, the new airport Felipe Ángeles International Airport is set to open to commercial traffic on March 21, 2022. However, some have questioned whether or not the airport will be ready to accommodate passengers in just 3 months. Nevertheless, two airlines are ready to begin daily operations from opening day.
The following statement regarding construction at the Santa Lucia site is available on the Mexican government’s official website:
“Our budgets do not consider profits, indirect costs are very low, costs are reduced even more considering military manpower and military machinery, by virtue of having specialized personnel…”
Image: Layout of Felipe Ángeles International Airport
Unlike the original new Mexico City airport at the Texcoco site, the new Mexico City Airport at Santa Lucia will not serve as a total replacement for the current Mexico City International Airport. It is not entirely clear why this is the case. However, it is believed that construction plans will not immediately call for terminal space that adequately handles the volume required to replace Mexico City’s current airport. Additionally, the location of the airport is better suited to serve as a hub for low cost carriers and cargo traffic than as a replacement for operations at the current Mexico City airport.
The result is a significantly smaller new Mexico City airport with significantly reduced ambition as to what the site will eventually become. Still, the new airport will be a world-class facility.
Progress: From the Gobierno de México Official Website (from November 2021)
The Most Inconvenient Option for Travelers
The original site for a new Mexico City International Airport was located relatively close to the center of Mexico City. The Texcoco site was just 9.5 miles to the east of the current Mexico City International Airport. With existing public transportation infrastructure just 5 miles to the west of the Texcoco site, linking the new airport to existing public transportation would have been simple and inexpensive. For those that preferred private vehicles, the Texcoco site already bordered a major thoroughfare that gave motorists access to Mexico City’s most vital roadways. However, with the site too controversial and the new administration’s pledge to adhere to its populist agenda, easy access was not an easy selling point.
27 miles north of the Texcoco site sits the final site of Mexico City’s new international airport. However, the site also sits roughly 20 miles too far north with the nearest metro station 20 miles south at Ciudad Azteca. The site of Mexico City’s new airport is roughly 31 miles north of the city center while the site is just 7 miles from the border of the State of Mexico and Hidalgo. Travelers wishing to access the airport using a private vehicle are also out of luck with road infrastructure underdeveloped in the area.
There are multiple plans to make the new airport more accessible to both those utilizing public transit and private vehicles. However, it is unclear when these projects will be completed. As of December 2021, a new bus route is underway and should be ready by the time the airport opens in 2022. Travelers located in the heart of Mexico City and in regions like Álvaro Obregón are just as well off accessing the nearby airport in Toluca as they are accessing the new Mexico City Airport.
Travel Times: Comparing Mexico City’s Airports
I will be the first to admit, I am a gringo that lives far outside of Mexico City. Nevertheless, population statistics and transportation maps do not lie. The Santa Lucia site is far more inconvenient for those that rely on both public transportation and private vehicles when compared to both the current Mexico City International Airport and the Texcoco site. However, it is quite evident that the Texcoco site failed to respect the land rights and demands of those residing in that area.
Still, it is hard to envision a Mexico City in which anyone has to travel over an hour to reach some of the most popular and populous areas of the region. At the same time, traveling over an hour to reach the most popular or most populous areas of a city is already a reality in many cities.
Travel Times: Major US Airports to Major City Centers
Mexico City’s new airport is inconvenient for many travelers when compared to the location of the city’s current airport and the original Texcoco site. However, when compared to some of the largest cities in the United States, this inconvenience is not unheard of.
It is worth noting that these travel times are based on historic data provided by Google Maps. Therefore, the data provided by Google Maps does not take into consideration the fact that these routes will become more heavily traveled when the new airport opens. This makes public transportation projects linking the new airport to existing networks, crucial.
What March 21, 2022 Will Look Like
As of December 2021, the Mexican government still plans on opening the new airport on March 21, 2022. Assuming all of the pieces, of which there are many, come together, this is what March 21, 2022 will look like at the airport
On March 21, 2022, just two airlines will be operating out of the airport. Those airlines are VivaAerobus and Volaris. Both airlines are ultra-low-cost carriers based in Mexico. Both VivaAerobus and Volaris will serve two destinations. On opening day, the airport’s route network will consist of four destinations throughout Mexico. A fifth destination, Caracas, will be added by Venezeula’s Conviasa on May 1, 2022.
An airport is far more than just runways and terminals. For an airport to be feasible, it must be connected to the community it serves. At the moment, it is not clear whether or not infrastructure outside of the airport will be ready to handle an influx of travelers.
In a best-case scenario for the airport, assuming no additional service is added and none of the planned service at the airport ends, Felipe Ángeles International Airport can expect a maximum of 584,440 passengers in its first year of operations. Even at an average load factor of 50% per flight, the airport can expect to see around 292,200 passengers in the first year of operations. That being said, let’s use the average of 438,330 passengers in the first year.
An airport approaching 440,000 annual passengers might seem small. However, 440,000 annual passengers would place Felipe Ángeles International Airport as the 181st busiest airport in the United States and the 36th busiest in Mexico. With almost half a million passengers passing through the new airport’s terminals, significant improvements to surrounding vehicular infrastructure will be needed.
With just two airlines operating from the airport on the first day of operations, congestion might be commonplace outside of the airport. However, the area should be able to manage for some time until passenger figures begin to pick up at which time, traffic around the airport might become insufferable.
What Does The New Airport Have to Offer?
Fanfare and unique passengers amenities are to accompany any major new international airport, right? In the case of the new Mexico City airport, this is not the case. Additionally, the general public may never be sure as to what the true cost of the new airport will be. As of December 2021, one figure has been released. The new airport–terminal, and runways included–is estimated to cost just shy of $4 billion USD.
For comparison, Los Angeles International Airport’s new Midfield Concourse, an expansion of the existing Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT), ran up a tab totaling over $1.5 billion. Furthermore, New York-LaGuardia’s modernization which included only minor changes to the airfield cost a whopping $8 billion. Finally, the significantly larger Beijing-Daxing International Airport project is estimated to cost upwards of $20 billion.
While this might seem like a bunch of unnecessary numbers, these numbers help one to better understand the true cost of building a brand new airport. Even better, when the new Mexico City airport project was a part of private-sector efforts, plenty of costs associated with the construction of the new Mexico City airport were made available to the general public.
The total cost of the new Mexico City airport at the Texcoco site was estimated to be around $13.3 billion. However, this was for a passenger terminal that would accommodate over double the number of passengers expected to pass through Felipe Ángeles International Airport. Furthermore, one runway already existed at the site of Felipe Ángeles International Airport. Ultimately, considering that construction costs, especially those involving public entities, are highly variable, the true cost of the new Mexico City Airport might never come to light.
AMLO has responded to concerns over the cost of construction at the Santa Lucia site stating that “We have nothing to hide. We’re not like the conservatives.” Since his remarks, the total cost of the airport has been cited as totaling around $4 billion.
So, what will passengers get for $83 billion pesos (~$4 billion USD)? Unfortunately, not much about the passenger facilities have been made available. As of late 2021, what is known is that there will be a somewhat swanky new passenger terminal that can accommodate around 20 million passengers annually. There will be a parking structure, and eventually, a connection to public transit. Since the airport will primarily serve as a hub for low-cost carriers, amenities will likely be that of the typical international airport.
Here are two of the renderings of the new airport’s interior that are available to the public:
There is not much else to be said of the new passenger terminal. There is no doubt that it will be a massive improvement when compared to the current facilities at the current Mexico City International Airport. However, the new airport will likely pale in comparison to projects in neighboring countries. It will likely fail to ooh and ahh passengers. Still, it will be better than the alternative.
The Bottom Line
Mexico City’s new international airport is just three months away from opening its doors to passengers. However, there are still a lot of questions and uncertainties surrounding the new airport. While the new airport is being built on a site that has appeased the public, its $4 billion price tag appears to leave a lot to be desired. For one, the airport will not serve as a replacement for the existing Mexico City International Airport. Rather, the new airport is designed to complement the existing overcrowded airport. Furthermore, much of the outside infrastructure needed to operate a successful airport is still up in the air.
For now, the Mexican government has assured the public that the new airport will be ready for opening day on March 21, 2022. Nevertheless, the project appears to be months away from completion if not years considering the current state of the infrastructure surrounding the airport.
What do you make of the new Mexico City airport? Are you looking forward to opening day at the airport?
Featured image contains media from the Government of Mexico