Thousands of feet above Mexico City is proof that what politicians say they’ll do and what they can do doesn’t always jibe.

Presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador says he wants to halt a $13 billion project to build a new airport and replace it with his own, cheaper option. But officials at a top aviation research center say it simply can’t be done.

High Above Mexico City, a Politician's Promises Hit a Wall

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador

Photographer: Cesar Rodriguez/Bloomberg

The reason why comes down to that spot high up in the air. Think of it like a doorway that planes must pass through to get the angle, speed and wind lift they need to safely land in the geographically tricky capital city. Lopez Obrador’s plan to add two runways at a military base while keeping the existing commercial airport open would put jets dangerously close to each other as they crisscross the same in-air gateway, experts say.

“This is out of his reach because of physics and aeronautics laws,” said Bernardo Lisker, international aviation director at the Mitre Corp.’s Center for Advanced Aviation System Development, a non-profit research organization based in Virginia that has studied the alternative plan and ruled it not viable. When building an airport, “the number one focus needs to be aeronautics.”

Some other aspects of Lopez Obrador’s plan -- like splitting international flights and domestic flights among the two airports -- could work even though airlines and passengers would hate it, Lisker said. Mitre has worked with every Mexican administration since 1996 to try to find the best alternative to Mexico City’s overcrowded Benito Juarez airport.

Lopez Obrador isn’t backing down. His team has consulted their own experts, said Javier Jimenez, the would-be appointee to run the Transportation Ministry, and “we don’t agree at all that the trajectories would overlap.”

High Above Mexico City, a Politician's Promises Hit a Wall

Construction of the New International Airport of Mexico City.

Photographer: Brett Gundlock/Bloomberg


With the July 1 presidential election quickly approaching, work on the new $13 billion airport that began under current President Enrique Pena Nieto is almost a third of the way complete. Lopez Obrador has criticized that project as being a waste of taxpayer money and rife with corruption after Mexico’s federal auditor found “irregularities” amounting to almost 1 billion pesos ($54 million).

A firebrand leftist, Lopez Obrador is known for trying to rewrite the rules. He’s also discussed turning back the clock on a landmark oil-industry overhaul that stripped state producer Pemex of its monopoly. Pemex itself has said an about-face on the oil reform would be a “shame.”

But while Lopez Obrador is making investors and the business community nervous, the rabble-rouser is resonating with voters. The 64-year-old former mayor of Mexico City has widened his lead in polls since November and now holds a lead of almost 20 percentage points over his closest rival, Ricardo Anaya, according to Bloomberg’s Poll Tracker.

"Bursting At The Seams"

Should he win and actually scrap the new airport project, it could reduce passenger traffic by 20 million per year by 2035 and cut future gross domestic product by as much as $20 billion, according to the International Air Transport Association. “The current airport is bursting at the seams,” it said in a statement.

The new hub, being built in a stretch of land the size of Manhattan, will eventually handle as many as 68 million passengers a year. It will replace the existing airport, which would be shut down.

Lopez Obrador recently wrote a letter in a leading Mexican newspaper aimed at easing investor concerns. He vowed not to confiscate assets and while he plans to review airport contracts one by one for signs of corruption, he said investor rights will be respected.

That still doesn’t address the issue of feasibility. Pilot Miguel Angel Valero said that in his experience, there’s no real way to get around using that in-air gateway, which the aviation community has dubbed “San Mateo” because it sits straight above a Mexico City suburb town by the same name. Because Mexico City sits in a high-altitude valley, the surrounding mountains leave little room to vary the approach, said Valero, who is also a former president of Mexico’s School of Aviation Pilots.

“Airports,” he said “have to be built from the air down to the ground.”

— With assistance by Nacha Cattan