Sunday, May 15, 2022

Mexico’s Not-So-Friendly Skies: A close call between two Airbus A-320s is only the latest near miss for air travelers

Employees work at the new Felipe Angeles International Airport near Mexico City, January 31.

The Wall Street Journal 
By Mary Anastasia O’Grady
May 15, 2022 3:57 pm ET

A near-collision of two jets in Mexico City was captured on video May 7, stunning the nation. One plane was about to land, the other cleared for takeoff on the same runway at Benito Juárez International Airport; both flights were operated by the discount airline Volaris. Within two days, Víctor Manuel Hernández Sandoval, director of navigation services for Mexican Air Space—the country’s air-traffic control authority—had resigned.

Confidence in Mexican air safety remains shaken, because the circumstances that led to the close call run deeper than the competency of one man. The near-disaster has reignited a public debate about whether changes to the funding and infrastructure of Mexico’s air-transportation network, executed under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, have made Mexico’s airspace dangerous.

Mr. López Obrador calls charges that he has increased air-travel risks a conspiracy by his political opponents. If that’s true, the U.S. 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 according to the administration “means that the country’s laws or regulations lack the necessary requirements to oversee the country’s air carriers in accordance with minimum international safety standards, or the civil aviation authority is lacking in one or more areas,” like technical expertise, training, data collection, inspections and safety concerns. The U.N.’s International Civil Aviation Organization sets those standards.

This happened before, in 2010, but Mexico recovered the higher rating in about four months. In July 2021 the government said that restoring its Category 1 rating was a priority. But on May 7, nearly a year after the 2021 downgrade, a fatal collision involving two Airbus A320s was averted only because a skillful pilot pulled up in time to avoid slamming into the other plane. The aviation community is warning that Mexican airspace is an accident waiting to happen.

Last week the head of Mexico’s air-traffic controllers union, José Alfredo Covarrubias, blasted the government for failing to provide funding for properly functioning equipment and for a deficit of 300 controllers, which, he said, leaves those on the frontlines overworked. This problem isn’t unique to Mexico City, he said, but includes tourist destinations around the country. According to a report in the newspaper El Universal, which interviewed Mr. Covarrubias, the union says there have been 30 serious air incidents nationwide since December. It blames this heightened vulnerability on “the redesign of the airspace and current working conditions,” El Universal wrote.

That redesign was launched by the López Obrador administration in April 2021. The International Air Transport Association has said that since then there have been 17 “ground proximity warning system alerts” at Benito Juárez alone. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations has complained that air-traffic control isn’t trained in the redesign.

This didn’t need to happen. To create higher capacity for Mexico City, the Virginia-based consulting firm Mitre helped the government identify the dry lake basin of Texcoco 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 a jet safely.

The $13 billion project—the New International Mexico Airport—was almost 40% complete when Mr. López Obrador took office in December 2018. He argued that the state-of-the-art facility serving one of Latin America’s largest metropolises was an extravagance for the rich. He killed it. To add capacity to Benito Juárez, he assigned the construction of new runways at the Santa Lucia military base.

The Santa Lucia facility, named Felipe Ángeles International Airport, opened in March. It handles an average of 12 departures and arrivals daily. There is only one international flight, with service to and from Caracas, Venezuela. Benito Juárez, a connections hub closer to the urban center, has nearly 900 daily flights.

Mr. López Obrador will now force traffic to his pet project by reducing flights at Benito Juárez and assigning any new routes to Felipe Ángeles. The flying public will be worse off—and not only because of more-expensive ground transportation and fewer connections.

Pilots landing at the busy Benito Júarez have to skirt the other airport. This requires that they begin their approaches at higher altitudes and closer to the mountains where the air is unstable, then descend steeply. On May 4 the international pilots association cited several incidents of “low fuel states due to unplanned holding, diversions for excessive delays, and significant GPWS [ground proximity warning system] alerts where one crew almost had a controlled flight into terrain.”

That’s pilot-speak for a crash. It’s a risk generated not by aviation but by Mr. López Obrador’s political agenda.


  1. Another reason not to go to Mexico, as if I needed one more…

  2. One can only hope that José Alfredo Covarrubias (the air traffic controller union chief)'s efforts, i.e., having publicly expressed his concerns, are not rewarded by being targeted by assassins.

  3. Socialists are constantly finding new ways to kill you.

  4. I enjoy my visits to Mexico and will continue to go there. However, it's a hopelessly corrupt Country at its core. Think about it: it's bordered by the US, has incredible mineral riches, agriculture, and tourism and yet it is still Third World.

  5. So if I don't get killed landing at my Mexican destination, my only concern is getting caught in the crossfire between two drug cartels.

    Does López Obrador care about the Mexican tourist industry?

    Does he care about anything other than his political agenda?

  6. A few years ago a pilot friend talked me into flying to Baja with our wives to watch and kiss the Gray whales. Taking turns flying I landed in San Felipe for Customs clearance. The wives both shrieked when we were greeted on the ramp by a dozen Federales carrying M16's. I thought we were being arrested because I had such difficulty undertanding the ATC instructions and thought I had done something wrong.

    We were greeted at the tiny dirst airstrip at Muleje by another squad of Federale thugs carrying M16's and after spending three days and nights we we were denied departure at the airstrip by the Federales until we had paid their Mordida ransom.

    At Loredo it was the same strong-arm scenario. More Mordida. We paid the ransom with barely enough money left to get fuel and head to Hermosillo Customs. The ATC at Hermosillo spoke such broken English that we thought we were being arrested again after we were greeted with their M-16 carrying thugs. After fueling and taxing out past the Mordida brigade ATC cleared me for "Teekoff en the Roonway" where upon I firewalled the C205 and made a beeline for Tucson, AZ customs.

    When we taxied up to the ramp I tuned off the engine and we all got out and kissed the pavement. The only positive thing I can say about the entire experience is that we did get to pet and kiss the whales.

    Mexico is a currupt 3rd World cesspool. Flying and communicating with ATC is a nightmare.

    1. If the stories written about the default culture is true, a common practice is to not pay salary for policing because the shakedown money is expected to be how they "earn" their pay. Good thing we are not importing the culture to the USA (checks notes) - oh! We are.

  7. Please do invade, level this cesspool to the ground.

    The major problem with ATC's down here right now isn't what this article claim, is diversity hires, Cancun international couldn't fill the quota of qualified ladies on the payroll, so they slipped in a couple non-english speakers with zero experience on the job.
    Same all around the country.

  8. Those of us who work in government in the U.S. get a good laugh at all of you casting stones at other countries for their corruption.