Service at Tijuana Airport on Upswing

Tijuana International Airport's director says the problems that have beset the airport since its privatization seven years ago are being solved and the facility is offering improved service to passengers on both sides of the border.

At a presentation yesterday to the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce's Mexico Business Center, Enrique Valle Alvarez, who took charge of Tijuana's airport last year, also expressed interest in cooperating with San Diego on a cross-border terminal that would allow passengers to check in on the U.S. side of the border and proceed across to take flights from Tijuana.

The Tijuana airport and 11 other northwestern Mexican airports were handed over to private operators in 1999. Early this year, the federal government, which previously owned the airports and retained a majority of the shares, relinquished its interest in an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange and Mexican Bolsa de Valores.

Mexican corporate interests also replaced Spanish entities in directing the publicly traded operating company, Grupo Aeroportuario del Pacifico, or GAP.

Valle focused yesterday on the improvements that have been completed or undertaken in conjunction with the changes.

He said $6.1 million is being spent on upgrades that include reconfiguring traffic patterns to create a passenger drop-off zone, streamlining passenger check-ins and customs and immigration processing, and installing additional passenger- and baggage-screening equipment.

"Everything is working better right now at the airport," he said.

Three low-cost airlines -- Avolar, Volaris and Alma -- have been added to the five that previously served the facility, and Aerocalifornia, which suspended operations this spring, is resuming service Aug. 11.

The number of destinations within Mexico served from Tijuana has been boosted by six to 26 cities, and a weekly flight leaves for Havana on Saturdays.

More international flights are in the works, Valle said.

Lineas Aereas Azteca will start flights to Oakland this month. "They will have it twice a week, but they don't have the specific days at this time," he said.

AeroMexico is considering offering service on Boeing 777s to Tokyo. The flight, which would originate in Mexico City, is expected to begin next year but "is not a done deal," Valle said.

And, he said, Mexicana is weighing flights to Shanghai, China.

Changes have been instituted that make it easier for San Diego passengers to use the airport.

Several airlines include taxi service from downtown San Diego in the price of their airline tickets, Valle said. There also is shuttle bus service directly to San Diego and several California cities, and negotiations are under way to allow car rentals that permit motorists to drive into the United States.

Valle said a cross-border terminal would better serve U.S. passengers and could double the Tijuana airport's 3.5 million annual passenger load.

The San Diego County Regional Airport Authority has directed its staff to pursue a study that would determine who would use such a terminal and gauge the interest of Otay Mesa property owners in selling their land. The agency sees a cross-border terminal as a way to help relieve Lindbergh Field's congestion but does not view it as the solution to the region's search for a new airport.

"We are very interested in cooperating with the project," Valle said. "The new investors have an interest but I can't speak for them."

Valle said he is in the process of solving problems that arose when GAP took control of the airport.

A dispute that arose when the previous director tried to evict the airport's restaurant and shop operators is almost resolved, he said. Contracts have been signed with 165 of 169 shopkeepers, and four are in litigation.

Airport officials are close to resolving a dispute over payment of municipal land taxes, he said.

Likewise, Valle said, a proposal to let the airport establish secure fences around the perimeter of the airport is being negotiated with Ejido Tampico, the communal group whose land was expropriated nearly four decades ago for the airport site but was never paid.

The compensation issue remains unresolved but is the responsibility of the federal government, which seized the property, and not GAP, he said.

Copyright: The San Diego Union-Tribune -- 8/04/06

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