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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on May 5, 2013

Mexican wave

Toluca International Airport has experienced its share of highs and lows in recent years, but resurgent passenger traffic and expansion plans point to a new sense of optimism, reports Oliver Clark.

When low-cost carriers first burst onto Mexico’s commercial aviation scene in the middle of the last decade, one of the big beneficiaries was Toluca’s Adolfo López Mateos International Airport (TLC).

Located just 40km from Mexico City and boasting good surface links to the capital, Toluca proved an attractive alternative to Mexico City’s congested Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX) for low-cost carriers (LCCs), and in December 2005 Interjet made Toluca its launch base, followed by Volaris in 2006.

Being the home base for two of Mexico’s biggest LCCs catapulted TLC into the big league with traffic jumping from two million in 2006 to 3.3 million in 2007 and four million in 2008, and it seemed that Toluca would quickly become Mexico City’s second airport.

Then disaster struck. The collapse of Mexicana in 2010 opened a gap in the market at MEX; Interjet and Volaris took the opportunity to move the bulk of their operations to the capital gateway, and Aeroméxico, which had launched operations from Toluca in 2009, withdrew less than a year later.

Consequently, TLC’s traffic slid from a peak in 2008 to 1.5 million in 2011 and fell to less then a million in 2012, opening up the possibility that Toluca would go back to being just another one of Mexico’s regional airports.

Toluca’s fortunes appear to have improved dramatically in recent months, however, with carriers including Aeroméxico, VivaAerobus and US carrier Spirit breathing new life into its terminals.

Aeromexico launched services to Guadalajara and Monterrey in February, followed by Acapulco, Spirit Airlines operates international flights to Dallas/Fort Worth and Fort Lauderdale.

Such is the spirit of optimism about the future that Toluca’s management are preparing a new masterplan that could see the building of a new runway and terminal over the next two years to deal with increased passenger demand, which is forecast to hit 5.5 million by 2015.

Speaking to Javier García Bejos, CEO of TLC, it is clear why he is so confident about the gateway’s future.

“Toluca Airport is a very uncommon airport in Mexico because it’s the only one that shares the market with Mexico City International Airport and we have a huge challenge handling that demand because, as you know, Mexico City is completely saturated.

“Over the next 10 years Toluca International will grow faster than any other airport in Mexico,” he predicts.

According to Bejos, Toluca’s role as an alternative to Mexico City has never been more relevant. MEX handle nearly 30 million passengers in the 12 months to February 2013 and is at saturation point, and Bejos believes that a key enticement of Toluca is that the small airport facility offers a much less stressful and friendly passenger experience compared to its bigger neighbour.

“We have a culture of service. What we are doing and saying in the market is ‘Fly easy, fly Toluca’ which is not just aimed at passengers but also airlines.

“Fly easy is an important message as people in central Mexico are facing the saturation of Mexico City Airport on a daily basis. They face delays and often problems with their connections and what we want is a friendly airport that is easy to use, easy to move around and easy to do business at.”

Toluca is also easy for people to leave. The airport is close to the two main motorways linking Toluca with Mexico City and is particularly well located for the business and financial district of Santa Fe to the west of the
city centre.

Equipped with a 30,000sqm, L shaped terminal – split into international domestic wings – and the longest runway in Mexico (4,200m), Toluca has the capacity to handle large widebody aircraft and is capable of handling eight million passengers a year, with a growth potential of up to 25 million.

With passenger numbers expected to rebound in the coming years, Toluca is planning expansion and Bejos talks about equipping the gateway with up to 10 passenger jetways with construction to start
“this year and end one year later”

Commercial areas, restaurants and VIP lounges will be given a revamp, English signage will be introduced, and a renewal of the airport’s international lounge and arrivals area and an expansion of Toluca’s
cargo facilities are all under consideration.

“We want to be the premium cargo destination in central Mexico. What we are seeing is that Mexico City is completely full, while just 30km north, Toluca has the best ground connectivity of any airport in the country, highways are being developing and we are looking at a new cargo terminal for Toluca Airport.”

Expansion will come from primarily private sources. Toluca Airport is operated through a public-private partnership with Spanish construction company OHL, the majority stakeholder (49%) in operating company Administradora Mexiquense del Aeropuerto Internacional de Toluca (AMAIT), with local state government (26%) and the Federal Government controlling the rest.

OHL is licensed to manage the airport until 2055 and also manages all commercial and complementary services.

Mexico’s Gatwick Airport
Bejos believes that Toluca’s mission should not be to rival MEX, a fight it can never win, but to operate a complementary service within a wider airport system, taking excess capacity from its congested neighbour and offering genuine choice. His vision is that the Toluca of the future could be the Gatwick or LaGuardia of Mexico City.

“I believe the Toluca vision could be different. At this moment we need to be as aggressive as possible. We need to be more like Gatwick Airport, which continues to compete against Heathrow and positions itself as a reliever gateway for the UK’s saturated hub airport.

“But in the future, I can see Toluca and Mexico City International Airport as LaGuardia is to New York’s JFK. We need to have complementary services.”


A second Mexico City airport
While Toluca busies itself with plans to become the alternative airport of choice for Mexico City, it seems the government has other plans.

In March, Secretary of the Economy, Ildefonso Guajardo, announced the government was investigating ways to reduce the congestion at MEX. All options were on the table he said, including the option of building a second international airport, a proposal long mooted in the capital.

So if a new airport does go ahead, will this leave Toluca’s dreams in tatters? Not at all says Bejos.

“This is one of the most important decisions to be made in Mexico’s aviation market for the last 20 years and I strongly believe the new government needs to solve this issue. Of course, we need a new airport, but this will not change Toluca’s plans – we aim to work together as complementary airports.

“Geographically speaking we are a very easy airport for business travellers. You also have to remember that the new Mexico City airport will not ready for many years,” explains Bejos.

“Until then, we can attend the market and then we will be part of a big system for the whole of Mexico State.”

Route development
While it remains to be seen whether Toluca can attract and retain carriers for the long-term, recent airline arrivals look encouraging.

Interjet is once again cranking up its services; Aeroméxico returned earlier this year, and VivaAerobus operates to Tampico and Villahermosa. But, perhaps the most significant thing, is that Toluca’s resurgent traffic is now international as well as domestic, and that’s a trend Bejos expects will continue as US carriers seek more market share of Mexico’s capital.

“The market is changing a lot and many LCCs are no longer as low-cost as they once were. These include Allegiant, JetBlue and WestJet, which are growing aggressively south from Canada and the US and want to go to central Mexico. Ideally, they want to serve Mexico City, but if they cannot due to the lack of available slots, they will fly to Toluca if they want to serve this market.

“Because of profitability requirements and [their status as] new players in the Mexico market, bringing in those airlines is a challenge.

“Today, we are aggressively growing our domestic market. In April this year four of the five carriers in Mexico will fly from Toluca; Aeroméxico is starting a sky bridge between Monterrey and Guadalajara; Interjet is encouraging routes from Toluca to leisure destinations, and VivaAerobus are doing a tremendous job connecting small towns and cities in regional Mexico.

“What we foresee in the short run is that our network in the domestic market will expand with greater frequencies, and now the priority is to attract those international airlines,” predicts Bejos.

Other advantages he outlines include: no bilateral restrictions on US carriers wishing to open up new routes; a seven minute aircraft turnaround guarantee; and last but not least, an incentive scheme that effectively slashes airport fees for new routes and offers landing fees that are lower than Mexico City’s Benito Juárez International Airport.

While the debate over the need for a second international airport for Mexico City looks set to rumble on, Toluca’s management clearly feel confident that their facility can thrive on its own merits.

Not only is it likely to be many years before a new airport is built, but Toluca is positioning itself to be a viable alternative to MEX based on ease of use, modern uncongested facilities, transport links, and a strong belief in accommodating the needs of both passengers and airlines.

“Perhaps we will never be a complicated hub with fancy big terminals to connect people with trains, but we will have an easy to use airport,” concludes Bejos.

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