A near collision of two jet planes in Mexico City was filmed on May 7, stunning the nation. One plane was about to land, the other cleared to take off on the same runway at Benito Juárez International Airport; both flights were operated by low-cost airline Volaris. Within two days, Víctor Manuel Hernández Sandoval, director of navigation services for Mexican airspace – the country’s air traffic control authority – had resigned.
Confidence in Mexican air security remains shaken as the circumstances that led to the close call run deeper than one man’s skill. The near-disaster has reignited a public debate about whether changes to the funding and infrastructure of Mexico’s air transport network, executed under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have made Mexican airspace unsafe.
Mr López Obrador calls accusations that he increased the risks of air travel a plot by his political opponents. If that’s true, the US Federal Aviation Administration and the United Nations are in on it. A year ago, the FAA downgraded Mexico’s aviation safety rating to Category 2, which the administration said “means that the country’s laws or regulations lack the requirements necessary to monitor the country’s air carriers. in accordance with minimum international safety standards, or the civil aviation authority is lacking in one or more areas”, such as technical expertise, training, data collection, inspections and safety issues. The United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization establishes these standards.
It happened before, in 2010, but Mexico reclaimed the highest score in about four months. In July 2021, the government said restoring its Tier 1 rating was a priority. But on May 7, nearly a year after the 2021 downgrade, a fatal collision involving two Airbus A320s was only averted because a skilled pilot pulled over in time to avoid crashing into the other plane. The aviation community warns that Mexican airspace is in imminent danger.
Last week, the head of Mexico’s air traffic controllers’ union, José Alfredo Covarrubias, criticized the government for not providing funding for properly functioning equipment and for a shortfall of 300 controllers, which he said said, leave those on the front lines overworked. This problem is not unique to Mexico City, he said, but includes tourist destinations across the country. According to a report by El Universal newspaper, which interviewed Mr Covarrubias, the union says there have been 30 serious air incidents across the country since December. He attributes the increased vulnerability to “the overhaul of airspace and current working conditions,” El Universal wrote.
This overhaul was launched by the López Obrador administration in April 2021. The International Air Transport Association said that since then there have been 17 “ground proximity warning system alerts” at Benito Juárez alone. The International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations has complained that air traffic control is not trained in the redesign.
It didn’t have to happen. To create greater capacity for Mexico City, Virginia-based consulting firm Miter helped the government identify Texcoco’s dry lake basin to build a replacement for the traffic-saturated Benito Juárez Airport. Aviation analysts said Texcoco offered the best conditions in difficult terrain – high mountains on three sides of a valley – for approaches and for landing safely.
The $13 billion project – New Mexico International Airport – was nearly 40% complete when Mr. López Obrador took office in December 2018. He argued that the state-of-the-art facility serving one of the greatest metropolises of Latin America was an extravagance for the rich. He killed her. To add capacity to Benito Juárez, he entrusted the construction of new runways to the Santa Lucia military base.
The Santa Lucia facility, named Felipe Ángeles International Airport, opened in March. It manages an average of 12 departures and arrivals per day. There is only one international flight, with service to and from Caracas, Venezuela. Benito Juárez, a connecting hub closer to the city center, has nearly 900 daily flights.
Mr López Obrador will now force traffic to his pet project by cutting flights at Benito Juárez and assigning any new routes to Felipe Ángeles. The traveling public will be worse off, and not just because of more expensive ground transportation and fewer connections.
Pilots landing at the busy Benito Júarez airport must bypass the other airport. This requires them to start their approaches at higher altitudes and closer to mountains where the air is unstable, and then descend steeply. On May 4, the International Pilots Association cited several incidents of “low fuel states due to unscheduled holds, diversions for excessive delays and significant GPWS [ground proximity warning system] alerts where a crew almost had a controlled flight into the field.
It’s the pilot’s language for an accident. This is a risk generated not by aviation but by the political agenda of Mr. López Obrador.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.
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