The U.S. downgrades Mexico's air safety rating

Mexican airlines will not be able to launch new routes to the U.S. until the government corrects the deficiencies and regains Category 1 status.

The U.S. downgrades Mexico's air safety rating
Photo by Ross Parmly / Unsplash

Mexico has failed the examination of the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States. The FAA announced that the Mexican government does not comply with international air safety standards, making it one of only eight countries in the world with category 2 status.

The downgrade allows Mexican airlines to maintain existing flights but slows the launch of new routes to the U.S., their main destination market, and the ability of U.S. partners to market code-share tickets, a blow to a sector that was just recovering from the drop in revenues due to the pandemic. The Mexican government has pledged to review the evidence and has expressed confidence in "a rapid return to category 1″.

The evaluation, which lasted from October of last year until February, has identified "several areas of non-compliance with the minimum standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)," reads the statement, which does not detail which areas are involved.

The loss of Category 1 status means that Mexico's Federal Civil Aviation Agency (AFAC) "lacks the requirements" to adequately oversee or is deficient in one or more areas, including technical knowledge, qualified personnel, record keeping, and inspection procedures. In addition to Mexico, only Venezuela, Curacao, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Pakistan, Ghana, and a group of small Caribbean islands are in category 2.

Despite the blow to the credibility of Mexican air authorities, the FAA says it is "fully committed" to helping them "improve their safety oversight system" through support and expertise. "Sustained progress can help the FAA regain Category 1″, the statement said, without specifying the timing of that possible reassessment. Until then, however, the agency will increase its scrutiny of Mexican airline flights to the United States. Mexico already lost its Category 1 status in 2010, when the U.S. detected a shortage of air inspectors, and it took four months to regain it.

In response to the ruling, the Mexican Ministry of Communications and Transportation has recalled in a statement the shortage of personnel it had during the review due to the covid-19 restrictions. In addition, it has assured that part of the evidence requested by the U.S. agency was delivered in the last three weeks "so maybe the auditors of that agency may not have assessed in-depth and in full such testimonies". One example is the publication on May 20 in the Official Journal of the Federation of the changes to the Civil Aviation Law, one of the FAA's demands.

Before the announcement, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador had tried to downplay the importance of the reduction. "It is not a delicate issue, I see more of a purpose to help U.S. airlines with a measure of this type, at the end of the day there will be no shortage of airplanes because air transportation is growing a lot and the economy is recovering," he said on Monday at a press conference.

The country's two main airlines, Aeromexico and Volaris, have issued statements affirming that their current routes to the U.S. are assured. However, Volaris, which carries the most passengers, has acknowledged that it will have to redirect its expansion plans to the domestic market, as well as to the rest of Latin America until it recovers its Category 1 status. As for the impact on its codeshare operation with U.S.-based Frontier, it has assured that "it represents only 0.4% of the occupancy rate of our flights". Aeromexico has had a strategic alliance with Delta for the past four years.

Along the same lines, the Airline Pilots Union Association (ASPA), the main union in the sector, wanted to disassociate the US decision from the quality of airline service. "The degradation is for the country and the aviation authority, not for the airlines or industry participants," the statement said. "The three companies with whom ASPA has collective bargaining agreements meet the requested standards."

The FAA's decision catches the industry at a delicate moment, amid recovery after the pandemic hit. "The outlook had been quite good, but this does put a pause on international traffic, to the United States, which is the main catalyst for tourism in the country," says analyst Brian Rodriguez, of Grupo Monex. "The second quarter was going to boost traffic because there were fewer restrictions on travel to the U.S. and Canada. The demand for flights will perhaps be being met by North American supply."

In 2020, Mexico saw a 46% drop in international arrivals. Although Volaris has come out of the slump relatively strong and has announced new routes and a fleet expansion, its biggest competitor, Aeromexico, is in the midst of a financial restructuring after filing for U.S. bankruptcy protection in early July.