Mexico’s business sector expressed concerns over the consequences of the abrupt cancellation on the country’s finances and its outlook as an investment destination. (The warning would prove prescient.) López Obrador went ahead anyway. It didn’t much matter that a third of the multibillion dollar project had already been completed or that its termination would lead to astronomical costs.
The massive airport’s termination left a gaping hole, particularly given Mexico City’s transportation woes. The current terminal is operating beyond capacity and suffers from chronic infrastructure troubles. It is slowly sinking. The need to replace it, or to at least alleviate its operational burden, was what led to the development of the larger, more ambitious airport that López Obrador scrapped.
López Obrador’s answer to this dilemma has been his own infrastructure behemoth: the Felipe Ángeles International Airport (AIFA), 27 miles north of Mexico City’s congested center. The plan was meant to enlarge and repurpose for commercial use an existing military base. In one of many recent overtures to the country’s armed forces — controversial, for a supposedly progressive president — López Obrador entrusted the army with building the airport. Done in haste and over its initial budget, it now faces reports of opacity and corruption.
On Monday, López Obrador inaugurated the new terminal. There was no lack of hyperbole. Mexico City’s Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum seemed lost for words. “It is amazing. Truly extraordinary,” she said. “Detractors should … see with their own eyes how magnanimous [sic] this work is.” Producer Epigmenio Ibarra, a loyalist, published an hour-long documentary, a paean to both López Obrador and the Mexican military, reminiscent of a different era in Mexico’s fascination with presidential power.
Propaganda aside, Mexico City’s new airport faces considerable challenges if it is to become a solution for the capital and, more importantly, an engine for the country’s tourism industry. Criticism has been fierce, especially when comparing the capability of the extinct project with the concrete limitations of López Obrador’s AIFA. “The Mexican government cancelled a 21st-century airport, with six runways and advanced versatility for operation, and instead built a bus terminal with two runways,” analyst Jorge Suárez Vélez told me “This has been the most expensive tantrum in Mexican history.”
The airport’s first days have been underwhelming at best. It began operations with just a handful of flights, including its first international arrival, to Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuela. It quickly needs to multiply its capacity to become profitable. Even then, according to financial expert Enrique Quintana, the AIFA could only reach the size of one of the country’s mid-level terminals in cities such as Mérida. If it manages to grow, that is.
That could prove difficult.
One of the main obstacles is the airport’s current lack of modern and efficient connectivity. Right now, says Suárez Vélez, the new terminal “only connects to the ego of a president who fails to understand tourism or supply chains.”
The truth is, in a metropolitan area like Mexico City, traveling 30 miles for a flight could be torture. On opening day, López Obrador tried to prove skeptics wrong by making the trek early in the morning. It took him about 40 minutes — at 5 a.m., on a holiday. Passengers will likely take at least twice that to catch a midmorning flight. Rush-hour commute could prove a Job-like test of patience.
This would all be anecdotal if the country’s future as a travel hub didn’t hang in the balance. For years, tourism has been crucial to Mexico’s economy. A modern, dynamic terminal would have done wonders for the country’s myriad destinations. Time will tell how tourists will react to a 90-minute slog toward López Obrador’s new “magnanimous” airport.