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Monday, July 15, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

FAA: New route from Mexico City to Houston has ‘nothing to do’ with safety assessment

The FAA downgraded Mexico to its lowest safety rating in May 2021, and there is still no end in sight to the ongoing evaluation and attendant sanctions.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — The Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday that a new Aeroméxico route from Mexico City to Houston “has nothing to do” with an ongoing safety assessment that blocks Mexican airlines from opening up new routes to the United States.

Set to begin operation on May 1, the route will be the first to run from the new Felipe Ángeles International Airport (AIFA) to the United States. The airport, which opened in March 2022, currently runs two other international flights to Havana, Cuba, and Caracas, Venezuela.

The FAA downgraded Mexico to its lowest safety rating, Category 2, in May 2021 after it found that the country’s aviation sector did not meet international safety standards. 

“We continue to provide assistance to Mexico’s civil aviation authority,” the FAA said in a written statement to Courthouse News. “We approved carriers serving existing routes from the new airport in Mexico City but that has nothing to do with the ongoing safety assessment process.”

While AIFA is located north of Mexico City in the bordering state of Mexico, the FAA considered the route to have already existed, according to an Aeroméxico press release this week. 

“Following an assessment of regulations and current conditions, U.S. and Mexican authorities approved the route considering that AIFA also provides services to the metropolitan area of the Valley of Mexico,” the press release said.

Aeroméxico already operates regular flights between Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport and the Benito Juárez International Airport (AICM), less than four miles to the east of Mexico City's Historic Center. 

“AIFA is part of the Mexico City airport system, along with Toluca and AICM,” said Roberto Kobeh, former president of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). “In other words, the destination is Mexico City, where AIFA is located.”

The route approval does not weaken the legitimacy of the FAA’s security assessment of Mexico’s aviation sector, Kobeh said, but other Mexican aviation experts did not share that opinion. 

“The FAA is breaking its own rule,” said Rogelio Rodríguez, an aviation lawyer and former executive in the precursor to Mexico’s current aviation authority, who added that the FAA’s actions appear to be based more on market decisions, rather than safety.

“This removes all seriousness from the FAA’s safety assessment,” Rodríguez said. “The safety downgrade was due to a systemic failure. If they say that now this route has been improved, but not the whole system, there’s a huge contradiction here. They shouldn’t be evaluating route by route, because that just turns this into a strictly political problem, one of markets.”

Aviation analyst Rosario Avilés agreed there appears to be more to the ongoing downgrade than mere safety concerns.

“I think there is always a political component,” she said, adding that the reasoning for the route’s approval appeared to be a fanciful interpretation of what is considered an existing route. 

“They took AICM and AIFA to be equivalent,” she said. “It’s as though you had a route to Chicago and they gave you the option of changing from O’Hare to Midway.”

When asked to clarify how the new route does not pertain to the larger safety assessment, the FAA responded: “In situations like this, the FAA conducts a safety review of a proposed change. The FAA reviewed this request and found it to be acceptable.”

Other Mexican airlines that also fly to the United States declined requests for comment.

Mexico’s civil aviation authority told Courthouse News in May 2022 that it had made the changes necessary to recover Category 1 status, but was waiting on the FAA for approval. 

Aviation authorities from both countries met in Washington this past October, after which Mexico’s Secretariat of Infrastructure, Communication and Transportation announced that said recovery was a “binational priority.” That goal, however, continues to lack a definite timeline. 

Mexico’s aviation sector has seen serious problems in recent years. A near collision of two planes operated by Mexican carrier Volaris on an AICM runway in May 2022 led one aviation specialist to describe the airspace over Mexico City as “chaos.”

While the approval of the new route may on the surface appear to bode well for Mexico’s return to Category 1, Kobeh, the former ICAO president, said that is not the case.

“I don’t think it’s a factor,” he said. “In order to recover it, the laws governing aviation and airports in Mexico must be changed so that the civil aviation authority has the faculties to comply with its obligations, among other things.”

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