MEXICO CITY – Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is inaugurating one of his hallmark building projects on Monday, a new Mexico City airport that reflects the contrasts and contradictions of his administration.
There is government austerity — his main campaign promise is fully on display in the rather bare-bones terminal — as well as his customary outsized reliance on the Mexican army.
But there are also widely ridiculed government claims about how long it will take passengers to get to the new terminal, located 27 miles (43 kilometers) from the city center, and repeated complaints by the president that there is a conspiracy in the press to besmirch his new airport, which is named, of course, after an army general, Felipe Angeles.
“It is such an important project that our adversaries want to sling mud at it,” López Obrador said Thursday of the army-built terminal constructed at a military base. “There is a whole campaign refusing to recognize that was a very good decision.”
The president sees the new airport as a symbol of his twilight battle against privilege, conservativism and ostentation, things he despises. He reviles more than anything — expect perhaps foreign advice — the idea of “a rich government in a poor country.”
López Obrador found an easy target in the vastly expensive, architecturally daring project started by his predecessor to build a huge, flashy new airport in a swamp on the city’s eastern edge, much closer to the city’s center.
López Obrador decided to cancel that and build the new airport on firmer soil to the north. It is projected to cost $4.1 billion, which López Obrador claims represents a cost savings compared to the swampy site, which might have required billions in maintenance because of the waterlogged soil.
The new airport will run in tandem with Mexico City's existing airport, whose two, saturated terminals had been scheduled for closure under the earlier plan.
It is one of four keystone projects he is racing to finish before his term ends in 2024 — the airport, an oil refinery, a tourist train in the Yucatan Peninsula and a train linking Gulf coast and Pacific seaports — reflecting his vision that his is not just a normal, six-year presidential term. Mexico does not allow reelection.
He sees himself as leading a historic, irreversible “transformation” of Mexico, and he has turned to building projects — and the army — to guard that legacy. The army will actually own and operate some of the projects after they're finished.
“Because of López Obrador's revolutionary rush to deliver everything he offered in six years, which is obviously impossible, he has done everything in an improvised way,” said political analyst José Antonio Crespo. “He has said several times, this is not just another administration; this is a revolution.”
So when his Maya Train tourist project ran into problems — engineers found they couldn't build an elevated stretch along the Caribbean coast because it would mean closing down the region's only highway — they simply began running the line through the low jungle.
No comprehensive environmental impact statement or feasibility plan was ever drawn up for the project. Nobody knows how many tourists will really use it.
A rush to complete projects before a politician's term ends is not uncommon in Mexico, but has proved dangerous in the past. López Obrador's Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard rushed a Mexico City subway line to completion in 2012 before he left office as mayor. An elevated section of that subway line collapsed due to construction defects in 2021, killing 26 people.
In the case of the airport, López Obrador has waved off concerns about feasibility and profitability. It's so far from the city center that all major international airlines have shunned it. So far, the only international flight is run by Venezuelan carrier that is under U.S. sanctions and flies only to Caracas.
Most of the president's decisions on where and what to build appear to be highly personal. To justify them, he has held "referendums” for which only relatively small numbers of voters, mainly his supporters, turn out.
The new airport has been built for less than half the cost of his predecessor’s project, whose foundations are now sinking into what was once a lakebed — but its not clear how many people will use it. Few flights have yet been scheduled and key road and rail links have yet to be constructed.
López Obrador’s administration claims it will take only 1 1/2 hours for residents to reach the new terminal from the south side of the megalopolis of 20 million people.
That may be true when highways are clear, but the normally snarled streets could turn that into an unpredictable journey of 2 1/2 hours — longer than some of the domestic flights themselves.
José Antonio López Meza, an engineering consultant who has visited the new terminal, says “it’s hard to get there and we know that. I’ve been there, and it’s a very long trip… It takes two hours from Polanco,” a neighborhood near the center.
Perhaps to compensate, López Obrador’s government has fiddled with the rules.
His administration changed the rules that usually require passengers to show up two hours before a domestic flight, and three hours before an international flight. At the Felipe Angeles terminal, they will only be required to show up one or two hours before those flights.
And López Obrador decreed that any new flights will have to go through the new Felipe Angeles terminal, though travelers prefer the older, closer terminal.
“It means forcing the airlines, if they want to come to Mexico, they have to do it through Santa Lucia,” as the new airport is also known, said Crespo. “The risk is that many airlines might say ”well, then I won’t fly to Mexico.”
López Obrador also has been known to fiddle with figures. He often claims Mexico's coronavirus death rate is lower than that of the U.S. — something that even Mexico’s own government figures show is untrue: A government study of death certificates suggests about a half million COVID-19 deaths in Mexico, compared to about a million for the United States, which has about 2 ½ times Mexico’s population.
It’s just that Mexico did so little testing during the pandemic that López Obrador can point to a lower number of test-confirmed deaths, of about 322,000.
López Meza, the engineer, says the army has done a good job building the new terminal in just a couple of years, and accepts López Obrador’s argument against the old project.
“This airport is more austere. The other one was going to be very pretty, very impressive, but as an engineer I can tell you the building site was a mistake,” said López Meza. “It was going to sink.”
“It’s good that it’s going to be cheaper and functional,” he said. “I don’t want a luxurious, pretty airport. The truth is that the conditions of my country and our people are not appropriate for the airport they were going to build.”