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Mexico marks one year with FAA’s lowest safety rating

The FAA bumped Mexico down in May 2021 after determining the country’s aviation sector does not meet international safety standards. Aviation specialists say when it will return to Category 1 is anyone’s guess.

MEXICO CITY (CN) — Mexico marked an unsettling anniversary Wednesday when it completed a year classified under the Federal Aviation Administration’s lowest safety rating, Category 2. 

The country lost its Category 1 status on May 25, 2021, after the FAA determined its government did not meet safety standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organization. The downgrade prohibits Mexican airlines from opening new routes to U.S. destinations, but allows them to continue the flights already in operation at the time of the announcement. 

A visit by the FAA to inspect the necessary improvements to the safety oversight system of Mexico's Federal Civil Aviation Agency (AFAC) scheduled for Monday was postponed “by a few weeks,” according to a statement issued by Mexico’s Secretariat of Infrastructure, Communications and Transport, which oversees the AFAC and the country’s air navigation system Seneam. 

In the press release, the agency claimed that all of the 28 issues found in the audit that resulted in the downgrade were resolved during the FAA's most recent visit in April, and that “the AFAC is ready to receive the [FAA] experts and immediately attend to their observations whenever they determine.”

Mexican authorities had predicted in August 2021 that the country would recover Category 1 in the first half of 2022.

The AFAC told Courthouse News in a written statement that the postponement was due to the FAA auditor in charge of Mexico's certification coming down with a case of Covid-19 and that the delay in recovering Category 1 status is due to stricter FAA audit procedures than in previous years. Whereas a promise of compliance were once adequate, now all issues must be fully resolved to achieve certification.

The agency reiterated its full compliance, stating that it signed an action plan document along with FAA auditors on Apr. 1. It did not provide a copy of the document.

Among aviation experts in Mexico, however, that readiness is up for debate and shrouded in uncertainty. 

Rogelio Rodríguez, a former executive with the aviation agency that AFAC replaced in 2019, said he agrees with the official press release, laying the blame for Mexico's continued status in Category 2 at the feet of U.S. regulators.

“The FAA has simply done nothing. Mexico has been waiting for the inspectors since the beginning of the year, it has resolved the issues. The problem now is that the FAA’s silence, passivity and lack of definition concerning dates has put Mexico in a state of noncompliance and uncertainty,” he said in an interview.

This reticence to resolve the issue, Rodríguez claims, has allowed U.S. airlines to take advantage of Mexico’s inability to open new routes in a market growing as pandemic restrictions and fears subside. 

“That is not true. The official discourse is one thing and the reality is another,” said aviation and security consultant José Medina. “The FAA is a serious agency. What reason would they have for dragging their feet on this? It is in their interest to accelerate the Category 1 certification in order to ensure safety.”

The FAA declined an interview request but said: “Our consultations and support are ongoing.”

Blaming the FAA, Medina said, is “not only absurd, it reveals an attempt to cover up the problems that the Mexican aviation authorities created themselves.”

He pointed to issues such as the resignation of the head of Mexico’s federal air navigation service Seneam after a plane narrowly avoided an accident when it almost landed while another was already on the runway at the Mexico City International Airport this month. 

Two airplanes operated by Mexican carrier Volaris come dangerously close to colliding at the Mexico City International Airport on Saturday, Apr. 7, in this screenshot from a video shared with Courthouse News. (WhatsApp via Courthouse News)

The incident came on the heels of the release of a safety bulletin by the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations warning of several instances of planes landing in low-fuel states after unexpected delays, near midair collisions, and at least one case of an aircraft almost crashing into the ground.

The news highlighted serious safety issues within Mexico’s air traffic control system following a 2021 redesign of the country’s airspace for which controllers were not properly trained. An internal Seneam audit even found that at least 28 controllers who began working in 2019 did not pass basic admission assessments like English proficiency tests and psychophysical examinations. 

Although 14 of those controllers are reportedly still employed by Seneam, the head of the national air traffic controllers union Sinacta, José Alfredo Covarrubias, assured Courthouse News that they had been retrained and put in posts with low workloads and under close observation by superiors. 

Medina, the consultant, said this issue, like so many others in Mexico at the moment, has become politicized by a government that does not want to address it. 

“After the incident on May 7, we start to see more videos and audio recordings of other incidents which the authorities say are fabrications with political motivations. But seeing a plane nearly crash into another cannot be political,” he said. 

“Either deliberately or through incompetence, Seneam has generated conditions that promote a state of absolute insecurity in the Mexican airspace, and it’s just been one scandal after another, and instead of coming to terms with all of these things, they say, ‘It’s not us. We’re ready and waiting for the FAA,’” Medina said. 

Several requests for interviews or comment to Seneam went unanswered.

In addition to the increased number of incidents, experts also point to the AFAC's budget, which they say appears to support the claim that the agency has not applied the resources necessary to resolve the issues. Although the federal government gave it nearly 32% more pesos in 2022 from the year before, the AFAC’s finances are still lower than pre-pandemic levels, as its budget decreased by 37% in the first three years of López Obrador’s term.

In response to claims that it has not taken steps to resolve the audit findings, the AFAC said: "The so-called 'experts' are people who are not currently involved in the process of recovering the category and do not have the official information to declare if it is advancing or not. Only the aeronautic authority has this information."

The agency attributed the reports and evidence of serious safety issues in the Mexican skies to various climactic factors, such as the rainy and hurricane seasons, neither of which has started in Mexico yet.

“There are several possible explanations as to why the AFAC is not taking steps to resolve this, but what is perfectly clear is that we do not know why they aren’t doing it,” said Medina. “We can speculate reasons, but your guess is as good as mine.”

As for whether or not passengers should be worried, Medina said: "We should all be worried, not just passengers, but those of us on the ground as well. Both the national and international communities should be worried about this issue."

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