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Mexico City's New Airport Set for Bumpy Takeoff


This Jan. 21, 2022, photo shows a view of the control tower of the new international airport, which will be called General Felipe Angeles, near Mexico City.

Three weeks before facing a midterm recall referendum, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador will on Monday inaugurate his first major infrastructure pet project -- a controversial new airport for Mexico City.

Built at a military air base outside the capital, Felipe Angeles International Airport is meant to take the pressure off the city's Benito Juarez airport.

But so far only a few airlines have agreed to use it, for a small number of mostly domestic flights.

Benito Juarez, which handled a record 50.3 million passengers in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic and is located within Mexico City, is one of the busiest airports in Latin America.

Felipe Angeles, named after a general in the Mexican revolution, divided opinion from the start.

After taking office in 2018, Lopez Obrador canceled another airport project launched by the previous government that was already one-third complete.

He branded the $13 billion project a "bottomless pit" rife with corruption and decided instead to turn the Santa Lucia military air base into a second airport for the sprawling Mexican capital.

Lopez Obrador tasked the military with overseeing construction of the new airport at a cost of around $3.7 billion.

The army is also involved in construction of a tourist train in the Yucatan Peninsula -- another one of the president's major infrastructure projects, which also include an oil refinery in the southeastern state of Tabasco.

Lopez Obrador has hailed the new airport as an example of his government's austerity and efficiency, with zero cost overruns.

"It's a modern airport built by military engineers in record time, at a low cost and with the most advanced technology and quality materials," he said ahead of the opening.

Airport officials acknowledge that Felipe Angeles is not expected to be profitable until 2026.

In the meanwhile, it will be funded with public money.

Voters to have say

The opening comes as Mexicans prepare to vote on April 10 in a referendum championed by Lopez Obrador on whether he should stay in office.

While the president argues that the vote is an important democratic exercise, critics accuse him of wasting resources and even plotting to circumvent the constitutional limit of a single six-year term.

Lopez Obrador, who took office in December 2018, has promised not to seek reelection, following accusations by opponents that the referendum is a step towards trying to stay in power.

He enjoys a public approval rating of around 58%, according to opinion polls.

Lopez Obrador has overseen a series of referendums since taking office on controversial issues including his "Maya Train" railroad project and canceling the partially finished Mexico City airport.

Felipe Angeles airport will begin operating with only eight daily flights from national airlines Volaris, VivaAerobus and Aeromexico, as well as Venezuela's Conviasa -- the only international service.

On Friday, Lopez Obrador said that he had personally invited the president of Delta Air Lines to operate from the new hub, though it is unclear if the U.S. carrier will accept.

Benito Juarez's location in eastern Mexico City is far more convenient for many residents of the capital than Felipe Angeles, which is located about 40 kilometers north of the city's historic district.

A planned rail link to connect the airport with the capital's suburban train network is not scheduled to be completed until the second half of 2023.

The government admits that it will take longer to get to Felipe Angeles, so it has promised to reduce the time it takes to check in.

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