New Mexico City Airport is almost taking off, with few flights

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Two months before opening with only a few flights confirmed, workers are racing to complete a new international airport for Mexico City — one of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s flagship projects.

With two commercial runways being built at a military air base outside the capital, Felipe Angeles International Airport is meant to relieve pressure from the city’s Benito Juarez airport.

The existing hub, which will handle 36 million passengers in 2021, is one of the busiest in Latin America.

Its location in eastern Mexico City is much more convenient for many residents of the capital than Felipe Angeles, which is about 40 kilometers (25 miles) north of the capital’s historic district.

But Benito Juarez airport is showing its age and handled a record 50.3 million passengers in 2019 before the Covid-19 pandemic.

Felipe Angeles Airport, named after a general in the Mexican revolution, has been beset by controversy since its inception.

After taking office in 2018, Lopez Obrador canceled another airport project launched by the previous government and is already one-third complete.

He called the $13 billion project a “bottomless pit” riddled with corruption and decided instead to turn the Santa Lucia military airbase into a second airport for the sprawling Mexican capital.

Lopez Obrador tasked the military — which is also involved in his government’s pet projects, such as a tourist train on the Yucatan Peninsula — to oversee construction of a new airport at a cost of about $3.6 billion.

On a recent visit to Santa Lucia airport, construction workers were seen putting finishing touches on the interior of the new terminal building, while cleaners swept floors and cleaned windows.

Glittering toilets are decorated with images of traditional mariachi music and wrestling.

In other areas, especially the access road that will connect the terminal building to the highway, dozens of workers work with trucks and machines to complete projects on time.

The rail line planned to connect the airport with the capital’s suburban rail network is not scheduled to be completed until the second half of 2023.

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– ‘Give him a chance’ –

About 87 percent of the airport’s construction has been completed with two months remaining before the March 21 opening, said Captain Diego Diaz Avila of the military engineer corps.

In the first phase of its operation, the new airport will be able to handle 19.5 million passengers a year, he told AFP.

But so far, only Mexican budget carriers Volaris and Viva Aerobus have announced plans to operate a small number of flights at the new airport, with most staying at Benito Juarez.

Aeromexico, the country’s largest airline, has refused to use the new airport at an early stage.

Airlines are not ready to shift significant operations to new terminals, said Brian Rodriguez, an aviation analyst at financial firm Monex.

“They gave him the opportunity to operate there to see the costs, the demand and how profitable it was,” he said.

Given that Felipe Angeles is located outside the city, airlines using the new airport will seek to attract the several million people living in the surrounding area, Rodriguez added.

AFP contacted the main international airlines operating in Mexico — British Airways, Air France, Iberia, Lufthansa and American Airlines — to ask if they planned to use the new terminal.

Only American Airlines responded, saying there were no changes to the 13 daily flights between Mexico City and the United States.