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Mexico’s incoming president scraps partially built US$13 billion airport for capital

  • Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador argued during election campaign that new airport was tainted by corruption
  • Mexican businessman Carlos Slim is the airport’s main investor
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 1:14pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 October, 2018, 1:14pm

Mexico’s incoming leftist president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he would halt construction of a new airport for the capital after it was rejected in a referendum.

“The decision is to obey the mandate of the citizens,” Lopez Obrador said, adding that the money would be used instead to improve existing facilities.

The president-elect has been a staunch critic of the environmental impact of the project – the estimated cost of which exceeds US$13 billion – and said it is marred by corruption.

Business leaders said the new airport was sorely needed to ease traffic at Mexico City’s ageing airport, which handled nearly 45 million passengers last year.

It is unclear what will be done with the enormous foundations already built on the site, a former lake bed known as Texcoco.

Lopez Obrador, who succeeds Enrique Pena Nieto on December 1, said “two runways” would be built instead at Santa Lucia – a military airbase south of the city – and Mexico City’s current airport would be upgraded.

Another airport, at Toluca, would also be repurposed.

The decision will mean “years of delay” and multimillion-dollar losses, according to International Air Transport Association (IATA) officials.

“What we have heard from the new Mexican government is not positive because that means years of delay,” IATA chief Alexandre de Juniac said.

“We hope that this kind of decision will not be extended throughout the region.”

Peter Cerda, IATA vice-president for the Americas, said dropping plans for the new airport would cost US$20 billion to the economy annually.

“The new airport would have given US$20 billion more to the economy and 200,000 more jobs,” he said.

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Sales of 20 million tickets would now be lost per year, IATA said.

“The decision puts Mexico at a disadvantage as a regional hub,” said Cerda, adding that now “passengers are going to have to transit between airports to make their connections.”

He said IATA would lobby the Mexican government to change its position.

Mexican businessman Carlos Slim – number seven in Forbes magazine’s real-time rankings of the world’s richest people, with a net worth of US$67.1 billion – is the airport’s main investor.

He has led the business community’s criticism of Lopez Obrador, who won the presidency in a resounding victory in July.

“Cancelling the project would amount to cancelling the economic growth of the country,” Slim said in April.

Slim’s construction company CICSA was awarded the US$4.7 billion contract to build the airport’s terminal in a consortium with six other companies.

Pena Nieto’s government says the new airport would create up to 450,000 jobs and have the capacity to handle 125 million passengers a year when fully operational.

The International Civil Aviation Organisation, a specialised UN agency, supports the building of the new airport.

Lopez Obrador’s decision to submit the airport project to a public vote has been widely questioned.

Voters rejected the airport plan in a four-day referendum that was one of the leftist politician’s campaign promises.

However, the referendum was not organised by the national electoral authorities and critics have pointed to cases of voters casting multiple votes.

The failure of a computer system that was meant to centralise voter rolls made it possible to cast a ballot in more than one place.