Thousands Scramble for Flights After Grounding of Mexico's Azteca Airline

MEXICO CITY_Mexico's federal consumer protection agency said Tuesday it was negotiating with airlines to find places for more than 20,000 passengers who hold tickets with the suspended airline Azteca as the Easter vacation season nears.

Federal officials suspended the operations of Lineas Aereas Azteca at noon Monday because it said the budget airline had failed to comply with safety, administrative and technical rules.

About 145 people stranded by canceled flights at the Mexico City airport sought help yesterday from the consumer protection agency, known as Profeco, which was able to find flights for some after other airlines offered cut-rate tickets, agency spokesman Rene Carmona said.

"They opened space on their flights for prices below the total cost of tickets," Carmona said.

Between 20,000 and 25,000 travelers could be affected by flight cancellations at airports including Mexico City, Tijuana and Cancun, he said.

Carmona said travelers should contact his agency and their travel agents to ask for refunds or alternative arrangements, but acknowledged that Azteca still had not contacted the government to explain how it would make good on the outstanding tickets.

At one ticketing booth in Ciudad Juarez, across the U.S. border from El Paso, Texas, an airline employee continued to sell tickets for almost an hour after the company's flights were suspended, but authorities quickly stepped in to stop those sales.

An employee reached by telephone at Azteca's offices in the Mexico City airport said the company had not yet issued a response to the government's action, but may reply later in the week. The employee, who was not authorized to speak to the news media, said she could not discuss how many passengers had been affected by the suspension.

Deutsche Bank analyst Dan McGoey said in a report Tuesday that "while the suspension of service could result in some falloff in passenger traffic in the near term," other low-cost airlines would likely soon fill the gap left by Azteca.

Transportation Secretary Luis Tellez said Monday that inspections carried out from March 5-23 turned up problems in safety procedures and obligatory training for pilots, technicians and maintenance personnel.

He said the airline has 90 days to correct the problems.

Tellez said the Azteca fleet includes nine planes, but only four of those were operating. During the first two months of this year, the airline transported 113,592 passengers, or 2.3 percent of the country's total passengers.

Routes operated by Azteca, a privately owned carrier founded in 2001, are covered by 13 other airlines.