The audacious design of the new international airport being built outside Mexico City is far from the most controversial thing about it. Presidencia de México

It will become the biggest airport in the Western Hemisphere by 2020. But not without overcoming some heavy turbulence.

It’s not just an airport. It’s Mexico’s largest, most expensive endeavor in a century, a megaproject fit for a megacity. And along with those superlatives has come great controversy.

Mexico City’s new international airport will be the biggest in the Americas and the third-largest in the world. The distinctive X-shaped, six-million-square-foot main terminal will top LAX, Chicago-O’Hare, and Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson by handling more than 125 million passengers annually.

Flying high on then-rising approval ratings and a controversial Time magazine cover, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto greenlit the project back in 2014. The cost: $14 billion dollars––more expensive even than Beijing’s new mega-airport, Daixing, which is expected to become the world’s largest in 2019. But Peña Nieto will leave office after the upcoming July 1 elections, and his likely successor, front-runner candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is an outspoken foe of the project. That has left the fate of the enormous facility dangling in thin air.

The only thing most Mexican leaders agree on is that there’s a real need for a new facility. Benito Juárez International, Mexico City’s current main aviation facility and the busiest one in Latin America, is operating at 50 percent over capacity. In 2017, more than 46 million passengers traveled through a facility designed to only handle 32 million, after its expansion completed in 2007.

To replace the old airport,  Mexico City turned to Pritzker-winning architect Norman Foster, who also designed new terminals at  Beijing’s Capital International and Hong Kong’s Chep Lak Kok. Foster’s firm teamed with Mexican architect Fernando Romero, who is responsible for Mexico City’s spectacular Soumaya Museum. Romero also happens to be the son-in-law of Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, whose fortune of close to $80 billion makes him one of the richest people in the world; Slim’s companies hold 8 percent of the total investments related to the airport’s construction.

That construction is already well underway: The first phase of the airport, now known as NAICM (Nuevo Aeropuerto Internacional de la Ciudad de México), is expected to begin operations by 2020, increasing the city’s passenger-handling by almost a 100 percent. This initial stage will handle 75 million passengers annually through its main terminal, 96 gates and three runways. Once the airport’s master plan is fully completed in 2022, the whole complex will feature two more terminals, two other satellite buildings, and six runways capable to operate simultaneous landings and take-offs serving 125 million people each year.

A mock-up of the new international airport after a ceremony in Mexico City. (Tomás Bravo/Reuters)

That’s assuming, of course, that the airport gets finished. López Obrador, who has accused authorities of corruption and giving away contracts to collect political favors, is backing an alternative airport project, which would transform Santa Lucía Base––an Air Force facility north of the capital––into a much less expensive new terminal while using its infrastructure to increase the city’s current passenger capacity.

If López Obrador wins on July 1, his to-be communications and transportation secretary promised to demand the suspension of the new airport project “on July 3 or 4.”

López Obrador is hardly the only critic questioning the project. The new airport has been the focus of intense controversy since the site was selected. The airport is being built on a vast plain called Texcoco, 14 miles northeast of Zócalo, Mexico City’s central square. It’s a humid, marshy wetland; like the city itself, this was once an enormous lake drained by the Spaniards after they colonized Mexico five centuries ago.

And, like many parts of the city, it’s sinking. According to several reports, the construction site is subsiding between 8 and 16 inches every year as the city drains water from underground aquifers––the fastest ratio when compared to all other locations in the city.

To support the structures it must bear, the muddy, unstable land had to be covered by a thick layer of tezontle––a type of red volcanic rock often used in construction projects in Mexico. An elaborate drainage system composed of gigantic pipes, tunnels, and canals is being simultaneously built, so the terminal and its runways can handle the severe rainfall and floods during the city’s wet season, between May and November. On top of everything, Texcoco is also where Mexico City’s stormwater naturally flows.

Employees work on the terminal foundations at the construction site of the new Mexico City International Airport in Texcoco. (Carlos Jasso/Reuters)

“In terms of feasibility, it’s just the worst terrain,” said Fernando Córdova, environmental impact specialist and a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico to Alto Nivel. “There’s a reason why this part of the city hasn’t ever been urbanized.”

Others have pointed out the severe environmental impact the project could have on the nearly 130 bird species found on the wetlands of Texcoco, and that it will worsen the ongoing water shortage crisis faced by the Mexican capital. NAICM, along with the adjacent industrial and commercial zone known as Aerotrópolis, is estimated to consume more than 23 million cubic meters of water each year. Authorities have warned that Mexico City will only have water for the next 50 years if the capital doesn’t lower its current consumption rates.

The new airport is also extremely close to densely populated Ecatepec––a city of 1.6 million that’s part of the capital’s enormous 21-million-strong metro area. Its residents will soon suffer from intense noise pollution and real estate price increases, without even being involved in the decision-making process. Richard De Pirro, co-founder of the Mexican Institute of Urbanism, is particularly concerned about the informal sprawl that could be triggered once the airport opens.

“Adjacent municipalities do not have any urban development plans that acknowledge the fact that there will be a massive airport there,” he said. “The land surrounding the airport isn’t zoned, and it does not have a defined use. I’m worried that there could be a new sprawl through informal settlements, as is often the case in Latin America. In 30 or 40 years, the new airport will be phagocytized by the urban sprawl. And now, honestly, there is no plan for that perimeter that will surround that new airport.”

Nevertheless, aviation authorities insist that––given the circumstances––the chosen site was still the best option available. “I would not have chosen another place. The city’s sinking condition is just inevitable,” said Gregorio García, president of the Mexican College of Aeronautical Engineers. “Given the circumstances, it is the best place and the best solution from a technical point of view.”

According to García, abandoning the project now and using Santa Lucía as a secondary airport along with Benito Juárez International––as López Obrador may demand after the election––would be a disaster on many levels, on top of the enormous costs involved in halting construction on NAICM. Santa Lucía is 30 miles north of Benito Juárez, and their flight paths intersect. “Of course, pilots and air traffic controllers would do their job so that no accident happens,” García said. “But having two airports would significantly increase operational risks.”

Meanwhile, the fate of Benito Juárez, is equally uncertain. The old airport is set to stop operating once NAICM’s first terminal opens. After that, the old airport could become a university. A gigantic park. A major thoroughfare. A new industrial zone. No one knows.

But hold on: Carlos Slim has a plan, which he presented on April 16 during a press conference orchestrated in defense of Mexico’s new airport.

Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim speaks about the new international airport during a news conference in Mexico City. (Henry Romero/Reuters)

Slim wants to transform Benito Juárez Airport into a wider and longer Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s main avenue. According to the image below, Slim proposed a district of hotels and dense real estate development colored in yellow, a much smaller portion for lower density housing in orange, an enormous medical center in burgundy, a university in purple, and a commercial zone in red. Green areas would be limited to two thin lines next to the main avenue.

De Pirro, from the Mexican Institute of Urbanism, isn’t as enthusiastic about Slim’s scheme. “You have to be careful,” he said. “That really isn’t good urbanism. All the proposals seek to make these big projects. We want to see an intelligent subdivision of the territory that allows opportunities for all.”

De Pirro would prefer dividing the area into smaller parcels that might be available to individual developers. He points out that the re-urbanization of Mexico City neighborhoods like Condesa and Roma––now among the ones with higher living standards in Mexico City––did not involve large real estate developments nor changes in its road or grid structure. Also, businesses were encouraged to stay at a neighborhood-level scale. “It was organic. You didn’t see any big, outrageous developing projects as part of their own urban transformation.”

But authorities––both at the federal and local levels––do not appear to have a firm idea about exactly happens next, De Pirro said. “There is a lot of misinformation. The truth is that there is no clear deadline or timeframe to follow, and the future of that site still remains uncertain.”

Depending on the results of the presidential election, an even bigger uncertainty may be looming: What happens if López Obrador wins and follows through on his pledge to suspend NAICM?

Abandoning construction of a half-built mega-airport at this stage of the process might appear utterly unfeasible. But, then, so have many other things about the project. Wait until July, and we’ll see what happens next.

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