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Pilots and airlines raise safety concerns over management of Mexico City’s airspace

An air traffic control tower.
Felipe Ángeles International Airport, north of Mexico City, opened in March.
(Ginnette Riquelme / Associated Press)
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Pilots and airlines have expressed concerns over an increase in potentially dangerous incidents in Mexico City’s airspace since it was redesigned to accommodate a second airport, including alerts that planes could crash unless action was taken.

In the last year, there were at least 17 incidents of ground proximity warning system alerts for planes approaching Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport, according to a letter the International Air Transport Assn., which represents about 290 airlines, wrote this week to the head of Mexican Airspace Navigation Services, the government agency responsible for managing the airspace.

“As you know, these alarms, without the quick action of the flight crew, can lead to a scenario of controlled flight into terrain, CFIT, considered by the industry to be one of the highest risk indicators in operational safety, and with the highest accident rate, as well as fatalities,” the letter said.

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The Mexican agency referred a request for comment to the transportation ministry on Friday.

The association said the main factor in the incidents appeared to be air traffic controllers not using standard phraseology in their communications with flight crews. It requested a meeting with Mexican aviation authorities as soon as possible.

The following day, the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations issued a safety bulletin drawing attention to such incidents, as well as to planes landing with low fuel after being forced to circle unexpectedly or diverted to other airports because of excessive delays. It also cited “significant” ground proximity warning system alerts, including a near collision.

The incidents follow the March opening of Felipe Ángeles International Airport north of Mexico City. The converted military air base was one of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s signature projects after he canceled the previous administration’s partially constructed airport, which was supposed to replace Benito Juarez, because it was too lavish.

There were concerns at the time that López Obrador’s plan to operate two airports simultaneously could create problems over the capital. The International Air Transport Assn.’s letter said the incidents had been reported “since the implementation of the first phase of the redesign of the Mexico Valley airspace.”

A year ago, U.S. regulators downgraded Mexico’s aviation safety rating, a move that prevents Mexican airlines from expanding flights to the United States.

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The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had found that Mexico’s ability to oversee its airlines falls short of standards set by a United Nations group called the International Civil Aviation Organization. Those standards cover a broad range of issues including the regulator’s technical expertise, inspection procedures and record keeping.

The International Air Transport Assn. letter alluded to that situation, noting that the recent safety incidents “without a doubt do not help in the process in which Mexico finds itself immersed, trying to recover its Category 1 [aviation safety rating] that was withdrawn by the FAA last year.”

Mexico’s National Air Transport Chamber called on the country’s aviation authorities “to address with the highest priority the reports that have been made to them for months and make known the diagnosis and the measures to mitigate the corresponding risks.”

On Wednesday, Transportation and Infrastructure Undersecretary Rogelio Jiménez Pons told local media that the government has decided to reduce the number of flights allowed to land at Benito Juarez by 20%. He made no mention of the safety bulletin or the reported incidents.

The reduction is planned to start in July, and could force about 10 daily flights to the new airport. The government had already said any new flights scheduled into Mexico City would have to use Felipe Ángeles, but the new reduction applies to some existing routes.

Jiménez Pons said Benito Juarez had to reduce traffic because it is overloaded and needs updates. He said airlines can choose to go to Felipe Ángeles or to an even more distant, largely unused airport in the city of Toluca over a mountain pass to the west.

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The Mexican pilots association, a member of the international federation, said Thursday that it had requested a meeting with Mexican aviation authorities to discuss the situation and share the experiences of its pilots.

It called on Mexican Airspace Navigation Services “to address Mexican and foreign pilots’ reports, seeking in the first place the safety of air operations and the efficiency of our airspace.”

Associated Press writer David Koenig in Dallas contributed to this report.

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