by Kevin Rozario (London, United Kingdom)
A much needed third air gateway for Mexico City was inaugurated on March 21, opening up new tourism and travel potential for residents of the capital of Mexico and far beyond.
The first phase of Felipe Ángeles International Airport (NLU) – operated by AIFA, a limited company fully owned by the Mexican military – was built in Santa Lucia about 30 miles north of the city center in a record time of 29 months, though the gateway is far from complete. Nevertheless, it represents an important milestone in Mexico’s ambitions to expand its aviation activities.
Since opening, NLU has been a media talking point because of its distance from the capital and a route network that is still to be developed. However, long-term strategic goals rather than short-term gains remain the focus of the government. Using those parameters, Felipe Ángeles brings a number of crucial benefits as outlined below.
For transparency it should be noted that AirportIR’s parent company Modalis Infrastructure Partners, through its airportQM division led by managing director Fernando Lopez Calleja, was a key partner to Apollocom. The Mexican consultancy played a technology role at Felipe Ángeles, an airport the company describes as “one of the most modern in Latin America”.
The airportQM onsite team includes Ricardo Milani and Cesar Tello, both of whom worked with Modalis on the Panama City – Tocumen Airport ORAT project just prior to the pandemic and they are supported by local specialists Ángel Carrasco and Erika Medrano.
Eventual Capacity of 85 Million
Modalis Infrastructure Partners CEO Curtis Grad attended the inauguration, where the president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, often referred to by his initials AMLO, said that in its first phase, NLU has the capacity to receive 19.5 million passengers a year, plus 470,000 tons of cargo.
If all goes to plan, the eventual capacity of the airport would reach 85 million air travelers and three million tons of cargo annually.
Mexico’s secretary of tourism, Miguel Torruco Marqués, noted that Felipe Ángeles “will contribute to the strengthening of national and international air connectivity” and that this in turn would be reflected in a tourism uplift to the country.
He pointed out that, together with the capital’s current main airport of Mexico City International Airport (AICM) – also known as Benito Juarez – and Toluca, a mainly low-cost carrier gateway to the south west of the city, NLU will meet rising demand from travelers in the built-up Valley of Mexico. This is a huge metropolis with a population of 22 million, but including surrounding metropolitan areas that make up the so-called Mexico City megalopolis, the population rises to 31 million.
The presence of AMLO confirmed the importance of the new air infrastructure. Torruco Marqués described it as “a historic day for our country” and paid tribute to work carried out by “outstanding military engineers” in order to strengthen the Mexican airport system.
That system, consisting of 76 airports, with Tulum Airport in Quintana Roo coming next, has been under pressure. AICM – the main hub for Mexico’s largest airline Aeroméxico – was over capacity for several years before the pandemic as is Cancún neat Tulum. AICM also has other problems: its central location creates overfly and noise pollution issues for local residents and prevents further expansion there.
Alleviating Pressure Points
AICM processed 36 million passengers in 2021. This is well below its record 2019 traffic of over 50 million. But a rebound last year of 64% suggests that it may not be too long before it is back to 2019 levels.
Felipe Ángeles is expected to take some of those returning volumes away from AICM and it could see some big traffic increases as demand returns. First, however, the operator AIFA must expand the route network which is currently limited to just six daily domestic departures.
The government has told media that the airport will operate about 30 routes to various Mexican states by the second half of the year. That will be a start, but attracting US airlines to establish a cross-border network will likely be the next task in order to begin to establish NLU’s international credentials.
Felipe Ángeles’ is future-ready in that respect. It has three concrete runways, (two commercial at 4,500 meters each plus one military at 3,500 meters). The commercial strips are the longest of any airport in Mexico and guarantee simultaneous operations even in adverse visibility conditions.
Meanwhile public transport connections to downtown will include a suburban train service and two metrobus systems, plus access from three highways. Another carrot for airlines is that the Airport Use Fee (TUA), is less than half of AICM’s.
A Modular & Functional Approach
Conceptually, and in order to build it so quickly, the new airport has taken some steps that are at odds with some more extravagant gateways:
- Austere design and easy to build: What is not essential has been eliminated so that both the airport and military air base are based on a “logical and rational concept” without frills. The construction was based on prefabricated and modular systems using Mexican materials to allow for fast expansion.
- Efficient and functional: The terminal organization has been simplified to optimize passenger flows, luggage processing, as well as aircraft- and cargo-related functions and services.
- Sustainable: All aspects of energy consumption and carbon emissions, plus waste generation and water consumption have been tackled as outlined in an example below.
- Urban and contextual: The airport complex is claimed to be well integrated with its surroundings and respectful of pre-existing architectural elements such as the old town of the Hacienda de Santa Lucía.
From a services point of view, Torruco Marqués also commented that thanks to technological innovations such as contactless processing for much of the passenger journey, “the documentation process for 180 passengers will take just 33 minutes”.
Biometrics leader Vision-Box worked with the airport via a strategic alliance with Apollocom and Amadeus to deliver a scalable and automated digital identity system. The project in its final phase, will have implemented:
- 16 biometric pre-security gates for automatic document verification
74 self-boarding gates, and
58 Vision-Box kits for biometric nearby enrollment equipment at conventional check-in counters.
Meanwhile on the sustainability front, AIFA claims that NLU will generate 5.65 million kWh of clean energy per month, which reduces CO2 emissions by 24% (1.23 million kg of CO2 per month), the equivalent of planting 740,000 trees apparently. That level of electrical energy generation is enough for the consumption needs of a town of 50,000 inhabitants according to the airport operator.
Inside, the passenger can get from the entrance to the departure lounge very quickly. A concession contract for retail has been awarded to travel retailer Dufry, already a big player in the Mexican market, operating shops at 12 airports including five out of the six busiest.
For the time being, the retailer will operate duty-free and duty-paid shops in a space of 652 square meters. The offer will include core product categories such as fragrance and beauty, wine, spirits, tobacco and food from both international and local brands. More space will be allocated by AIFA “in line with the growth of international and domestic passengers” Dufry said.
Improving Market Conditions
Given how the Mexican aviation market rebounded last year, prospects for NLU could be good. Passenger traffic at the country’s top six airports grew by between 51% for Guadalahara (and not far off 2019 levels), and Los Cabos at 87% (overtaking its 2019 traffic).
This is good news for AIFA’s hopes in initially developing NLU’s domestic network as demand looks very promising in a country of over 130 million people. For comparison, the United States has a population of 335 million and Canada 38.4 million. The international network may take more time to build up but mechanisms are likely to be put in place to ensure this happens.
Analysis from seat analyst ForwardKeys on current conditions suggests robust air travel demand in Mexico. Olivier Ponti, vice president of insights at the company said: “The hottest destinations at the moment in Latin America and the Caribbean are El Salvador and Turks & Caicos, both registering more international bookings than in 2019. They are followed in short order by the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Costa Rica, which all have almost fully recovered.”
In the first quarter of 2022, while international air arrivals worldwide were still 59% behind 2019 levels, Latin America and the Caribbean were only 26% behind. But some destinations did better than others led by Mexico at just 6% down on 2019 while South America was still 50% off its pre-pandemic peak.
[Main image: Felipe Ángeles’ light-filled terminal. Courtesy of Curtis Grad]