Mexico City airport unable to keep up; Facility relies on 2 runways that modern jets can't use at the same time

MEXICO CITY -- It was rush hour at the Mexico City airport, and two of the planes cutting through the smog were getting uncomfortably close.

Aeromexico Flight 687, inbound from Chicago, was bearing down on a runway where a smaller turboprop plane had just landed. Seeing this, an air-traffic controller told the Aeromexico plane to abort its approach. The jet gunned its engines just 200 feet above the ground and soared back into the air.

"That's pretty common," said Jose Alfredo Covarrubias, legal affairs director for Mexico's air-traffic controllers union, as he watched the incident from the control tower last month. "This airport is just overloaded."

Neither plane was in imminent danger, Covarrubias said, and government officials insist the city's Benito Juarez International Airport is safe. But air-passenger traffic into the world's second-biggest metropolitan area is likely to nearly double by 2020, and pilots and air-traffic controllers say the airport may be unable to handle the crunch.

The airport's two parallel runways are so close together -- 990 feet separates them -- that they cannot be used simultaneously by modern jets.

"You basically have a city of 20 million people being served by one runway," said Jorge Sunderland, a spokesman for the Aviation Pilots Labor Association, Mexico's main pilots union. "It's a situation that cannot go on."

Domestic traffic set to boom

About 763,000 Americans fly into the Mexico City airport every year, and that number is likely to grow as trade between the USA and Mexico expands in coming years.

The number of domestic passengers is also set to boom in this vast country. Although most long-distance travel is done by bus, slow but steady economic growth is creating a middle class of Mexicans eager to fly.

Plans to build another airport to serve the capital were canceled in 2002, when machete-wielding residents revolted against the low price the government offered for land on the planned site.

The residents seized control of a nearby town, took 19 public officials hostage, torched cars and threatened to blow up gasoline tankers. Then-president Vicente Fox backed down, saying the government would try to improve the existing airport instead.

The government is putting the final touches on a $750 million terminal, but that will do little to reduce congestion. During peak periods, as many as 62 planes take off and land per hour, more than the airport's official capacity of 54.

Busy U.S. airports also frequently operate above capacity, but the problem at Benito Juarez is likely to get worse in coming years, resulting in more delays for passengers.

"As we start approaching a point where we're reaching that capacity limit more and more often, we're going to have to think of some other solution," said Agustin Arellano, head of the Mexican Airspace Navigation Service, which oversees air-traffic control.

For now, the airport's on-time rate of 75% is on a par with the U.S. average. There have been no major accidents at Benito Juarez since 1979, when a Western Airlines DC-10 landed on the wrong runway and hit a construction vehicle, killing 72 people.

"It is the safest airport in Latin America," said Rodolfo Mendoza, a spokesman for Airports and Auxiliary Services, the government agency that runs the airport.

Government officials agree that to prevent overcrowding, the airport badly needs a new runway -- and there is simply no room.

The airport is hemmed in on all sides by a city that has grown from about 1 million people in 1929, when the airport was built, to a metropolitan area of nearly 20 million people today. Only Tokyo's metro area is more populous, according to The World Almanac and Book of Facts.

City's extraordinary growth

The airport is one of several infrastructures that have struggled to keep up with Mexico City's extraordinary growth. Tanker trucks deliver water to neighborhoods where pipes do not reach, and blackouts are common thanks to aging power plants. The city's traffic gridlock is legendary.

A new wave of budget airlines uses airports in nearby Toluca and Cuernavaca instead of Mexico City. For those who want to fly on those airlines, getting to the airports involves a two-hour drive through brutal traffic over towering mountains, and many people have been reluctant to make the trek.

Ultimately, a new airport may be the only solution. President Felipe Calderon has largely avoided the issue, though Mexico City's new mayor and the governors of two adjacent states have pushed for the project to be revived.

"The traffic is going to keep going up," said Raul Campilla, the head of the National Union of Air Traffic Controllers, "and we've got nowhere else for the planes to land."

Hawley is the Latin America correspondent for The Arizona Republic and USA TODAY

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