Viva Mexico!

Airport Innovations South of the Border. Plus: Mexico City, More Than Crime and Grime.

Where am I?       Photo by the author.

Where am I?

June 9, 2014

CONGRATS to David K. of Poway, California, for being the first reader to correctly identify the location of the above photograph. David wins an autographed copy of Cockpit Confidential, Everything You Need to Know About Air Travel.

No, it’s not Stanley Kubrick’s HAL 9000 computer (the second most popular guess), the inside of an elevator, or a CIA interrogation room. It’s the ceiling of terminal two at Benito Juarez International Airport in Mexico City (MEX).

More than just an aesthetic novelty, each of those small portholes is a skylight.  During daytime hours, the terminal relies entirely on natural light.

And I have to ask, why don’t all airports do this?  Too many of our terminals are sealed up like caves. Think of how much power the typical one must use for artificial lighting, even in the middle of the day.  Why not let the sun do the job? Windows and skylights can be curtained or electronically tinted to adjust for heating or cooling, as need be.

Another wonderfully practical oddity at MEX is found in terminal two’s international arrival hall: a set of bleachers. At most terminals the arrivals lobby is a chaotic place. People crush around the doors, elbowing and jostling and craning their necks, waiting for friends or loved ones to emerge from the customs hall. At MEX they’ve eliminated much — okay, some — of this melee with a unique, stadium-style waiting area of vertically stacked benches. You can see it in the photo below (normally those benches are a lot more crowded). It keeps people from randomly milling around, and gives them a birds-eye view of the lobby. It’s the simple, cheap, practical sort of thing that airports could use more of.

MEX airport on a quiet afternoon.      Photo by the author.

MEX airport on a quiet afternoon.     Photo by the author.

Nice touches for sure, but no, we’re not quite ready yet to put MEX on a par with Singapore or Amsterdam. Terminal two is used only by SkyTeam carriers AeroMexico and Delta, as well as LAN and the Panamanian carrier Copa. The much busier terminal one, on the opposite side of the runway complex, is, I concede, a little less impressive. Grimy and overcrowded, it reminds me of La Guardia’s terminal B.

I’ve been flying into MEX semi-regularly for the past fifteen years. For the pilot, the airport certainly has its challenges. There’s high terrain all around, and the arrival patterns have numerous speed and altitude restrictions. Controllers love to reassign arrival routing while you’re in the middle of a busy descent, vectoring you off, then back on, then off again, throwing speed and altitude changes at you. The field itself sits at more than seven thousand feet above sea level, meaning that landing and takeoff rolls are unusually long, with very high ground speeds (approaching 200 knots during some takeoffs). For reasons I’ve never understood, it always manages to be turbulent on final approach when close to the ground, even when the winds are reported calm.

The usual arrival runway is 05 right. The ILS approach is a handful, but also one of the more fun approaches out there. Surrounding terrain dictates an initial course more or less perpendicular to the runway, followed by a tight, 90-degree turn directly over downtown, at an airborne fix called PLAZA. It’s important to be at final approach speed and fully configured — gear and flaps down, checklists completed — prior to making that turn. There are very few approaches out there where you’re expected to be in the full landing configuration before turning final.

Mexico City was one of the first places outside the United States that I ever visited. I was in tenth grade. A friend of mine’s aunt worked at the American embassy, and during April school vacation week in 1982, we went and stayed with her. She had an apartment right there on Reforma. The living room had floor-to-ceiling windows, with a view of the Angel of Independence monument — and the final approach course to runway 05 right. Shawn and I would sit there and watch the endless parade of Volkswagen Beetles navigating the roundabout below, while the jets barreled in overhead. Not many people remember this, but Air France flew the Concorde into Mexico City, and what a sight it was, roaring out of the amber haze and making that hairpin twist over PLAZA. Plus all the south-of-the-border staples of that era: AeroMexico’s DC-9s and DC-10s; Mexicana’s 727s.

It’s hard to believe that Mexicana is no longer with us. Founded in 1921, Mexicana was the fourth-oldest carrier in the world before it ceased operations in 2010. And what a beautiful name that was: Mexicana. Now we’ve got the likes of “Interjet” whatever that’s supposed to mean, and, perhaps the worst-named airline on the planet, “VivaAerobus”.

AeroMexico, at least, is still going strong. I’m not a fan of the swooshy, swoopy liveries that have become so de rigueur, but AeroMexico’s is one of the few that I admire. It’s handsome and distinctive; swooshy in a good way (unlike, say, the newest Avianca or TACA).

While I’m at it, how about a plug for Mexico City itself…

If you ask me, the Mexican capital is one of the most underrated cities in the world. It’s a shame more Americans don’t visit, especially when you consider what a short flight it is from the biggest U.S. cities.

When most people think of Mexico City they think of earthquakes, smog, kidnapping and crime. To me it’s Chapultapec Park and its world-famous anthropology museum; the Zocalo; the city’s gracious people; its fantastic food; and a variety of interesting day trips (to the pyramids, Taxco, Cuernavaca, Tepoztlan).

It’s a much safer city than people think, well clear of the cartel violence that has plagued the border cities further north. There’s beautiful colonial architecture, and impressive modern structures too:

Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

And while I’m not much of a foodie, Mexico is home to one of my favorite restaurants in the world, the elegant Fonda el Refugio, an historic old establishment on Liverpool Street at the edge of the Zona Rosa…

 Photo by the author.

Photo by the author.

The food is reasonably priced, and the service is lightning-fast. My favorite entree is the Carne asada a la Tabasqueña, with a couple of Negra Modelos. Makes me hungry just thinking about it. Margaritas are a house specialty, served in tumblers.


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15 Responses to “Viva Mexico!”
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  1. Katarina says:

    VivaAerobus is what happens when a bus company invests heavily in an airline.

    It’s a low-cost, nickel-and-dime-fee airline, too. There’s no complimentary snack service at all. Back when I flew with them, only once, you had a chance to pay a fee for earlier boarding (no assigned seats, though I hear that’s changed now) and checked bags. snacks are available at sanguinary markups.

    The pitch is close to non existent, and the seats don’t recline. The head rests were designed by a sadist who has a special hatred of the human neck.

    The one good thing I can say about it is the outside of their terminal in Monterrey is rather nice. There are a few benches with little translucent roofs to keep the sun off you, and a few patches of well-tended lawn among pristine gravel paths.

  2. Katarina says:

    “Now we’ve got the likes of “Interjet” whatever that’s supposed to mean,”

    I’ll tell you what it is, not what it means: It’s a passenger airline.

    By this I mean they focus on the passenger. To wit:

    25 kg. luggage allowance per passenger in all domestic flights, 50 kilos for international flights. Fees apply only if you exceed this.

    A lot of legroom. At least on the A-320, which is configured 3-3 with 25 rows, all coach.

    Take off and landing camera, on some flights (I wish they had it in all).

    It’s a low-cost airline, thus there’s no meal service. They serve snacks only, even on long (3.5+ hours) flights. Mornings this means a cereal bar and coffee, tea, juice or soft drinks. Afternoon and evening a miniscule bag of chips (three kinds to choose from), and soft drinks, juice, or tequila, rum, scotch and vodka, all complimentary. You can ask for a simple mixed drink like rum and coke. If you take a soft drink, you get the whole can or 600 ml. bottle.

    Now, this policy is no longer in effect, nut it was nice when they did it. It used to be changing a flight would cost 150 pesos plus the difference in fares. I made such a change on a flight from MTY-MEX and they charged me 75 pesos only. How come? the flight I changed to was a lower fare, so they deducted the difference from the 150 peso fee.

    You should try it next time you’re in Mexico.

  3. Miguel says:

    Hate to disagree, but your mention of MEX’s Terminal 1 as “…is, I concede, a little less impressive.” was a HUGE understatement… I’ll wager any of Mexico City’s Centrales Camioneras (bus terminals) are better kept.

    And yes, here in Mexico, we still mourn Mexicana (or, more formally, Compañia Mexicana de Aviación)… Such an elegant name…

  4. Jcs says:

    The air in Mexico City is much better than it used to be — still somewhat smelly, but mostly free of the absurd smog that plagued the city in the 90s (and even the mid-2000s). Nowadays, the air is probably worse in many cities in northern Mexico, where much of the industry moved in the post-NAFTA era.

    In general, though, I’m sort of dismayed to read this article… soon, Mexico City is gonna get too popular and it’ll be spoiled for the rest of us 😛

  5. MWnyc says:

    I’ve been reading a number of good things about Mexico City lately, and it’s good to see another one.

    How’s the air quality these days? I gather that the yellow skies one heard about in the 1980s are a thing of the past (outsourced to China, I guess), but how is the air now?

  6. Don Murray says:

    I used to work for Allegheny Airlines (now US Airways, about to be American Airlines). On a pass we went to Mexico City and I agree it is an underappreciated, but beautiful city with many close by destinations.

    I don’t know if it still a problem, but we asked a policeman about getting souvenirs and we were directed to a place which probably charged us much more than normal but it was a souvenir for us so we weren’t really upset.

    The other item is chicken mole. It is described as chicken in a chocolate sauce. (Actually it is normally shown as chocolate chile sauce.) My wife doesn’t like spicy food so I got it after her first bite. It was even too hot for me to have more than half of it. I have had chicken moles in US restaurants, but the spice there was very much higher, so just be aware.

    Still, it was a wonderful trip. I would certainly recommend going to Mexico City. I just don’t remember the approach to MEX, but that was many years ago!

  7. Geoff G. says:

    I just wish MEX was more international-transit friendly. I thought no one could do it worse than a USA airport, but MEX has raised the stakes – Take my middle-of-the night experience a few days ago flying from BOG to YVR via MEX (AV / AC):

    – In BOG, AV would not even tag my bag through to YVR. Would only tag it to MEX.

    – So procedure was:

    a) Arrive MEX from BOG
    b) Clear immigration (with no option on immigration form for ‘transit’ so I picked ‘other’)
    c) Pick up bags
    d) X-Ray bags
    e) Clear customs (my bags were searched)
    f) Make your way upstairs to departures
    g) Queue at Air Canada to check-in for YVR flight
    h) Get boarding pass, drop bags
    i) Head through security
    j) Head to gate

    We had a three-hour connection so we were fine. I certainly wouldn’t attempt it with anything less than a two-hour connection.

    I guess the only people doing international transits at MEX are Canadians 🙂

  8. John Knoll says:

    Patrick – thanks for the plug for DF! Stayed there a few years ago for a week, in a rented townhouse in the Roma neighbourhood. I went on a whim with some friends and was not prepared for how beautiful this place was. Great markets, good food everywhere (especially the street food!), friendly people, fantastic public transit, and wonderful weather. We went in March: nice and warm during the day, cool at night, with that dry mountain air. And like you, I’ve been telling everybody I know that Mexico City is not the horrible crime-ridden place they’ve been hearing about on the cable news networks. Keep up the good work!

  9. UncleStu says:

    “Chapultapec Park and its world-famous anthropology museum; the Zocalo; the city’s gracious people; its fantastic food; and a variety of interesting day trips (to the pyramids, Taxco, Cuernavaca,” also the Alameda park on the weekend is quite a scene with picnics, musicians, food.

    All great, and the people are friendly and courteous. The only exception is when boarding an elevator, then everyone crams in before anyone can exit. A cultural difference, I suppose – and it’s the differences that make travel so much fun.

    Viva Mexico.

  10. Elaine St. John says:

    ¡Saludos, “Patrico”!

    We’ve been living in Mexico for 9 years now, and it is truly refreshing to hear someone make POSITIVE comments about my adopted “patria” for a change! Your narrative brought back fond memories of Mexico City, and inspiration for another visit!

    Have you flown into GDL? My first time arriving here was in the late 70’s on a college language study program. As we descended, I noticed livestock meandering in uncomfortably close proximity to the active runways…when we deplaned to the terminal, there were no baggage conveyors, luggage was hauled out and placed on long tables! A dilapidated shed served as a taxi stand, complete with “gypsy cabs” all in competition for customers…a very lively scene!

    Nowadays, the terminal is small, yet modern and efficient, with a state-of-the art parking system. Sensor-activated signage allows you to quickly bypass fully parked rows, while the next available parking space is digitally indicated by an overhead green beacon. Gone is the “taxi-shanty”, the cab service is contracted through the airport, no haggling nor struggling necessary… I love our “aéropuerto”…

    Now, from a pilot’s perspective, I don’t know if landing/departing is pleasant or a pain-in-the-neck… 🙂

  11. Eduardo LM says:

    Such a refreshing article regarding my city. I’ve always enjoyed the approaches to Benito Juarez Int., that left turn just over the Hotel de Mexico is quite something.

    I am lucky to have an office with a view, it thrills me (every other day), to see all the 747’s arriving; first KLM, Air France follows, Lufthansa arrives third, and BA is always last… Been doing this since I was perhaps 10 years old.


  12. Lynn Schlatter says:

    Just adding my voice to the chorus of “thank you”s. I’m an American who lived in Mexico City from the ages of nine to eighteen because my dad managed the General Motors engine plant in Toluca, Estado de Mexico. It was heartbreaking to me when I took my husband to what I consider my home city and he was so worried about bad stuff happening. I just kept saying, “It’s not like that!” Then we arrived in the wake of the disputed presidential election of 2006 and well, it was a little like that. Nonetheless, it’s still home, and I still love and miss Mexico Lindo.

  13. Peter Fulton Foss says:

    In 1968, I flew on a Mexicana DC-6 (four engine prop) from Medico City to Merida. The plane gathered speed so slowly, I thought we were going to taxi the entire way. Finally, we attained an altitude of about six feet, and the pilot immediately retracted the landing gear. The plane didn’t so much gain elevation as the terrain dropped away beneath us! It was downhill from there to Merida.

  14. Beatrice Briggs says:

    It is SO refreshing to hear positive words about Mexico City! Everything you say is true – and merely scratches the surface of what this place has to offer. I am a US citizen who had been living in Tepoztlán, Morelos for 15 years. My work as a consultant takes me to the airport frequently. One of my “airport survival strategies” is to use the American Express Centurion Clubs (2 in T1 and one in T2). Those in T1 are much more conveniently located to international departure gates than the airline VIP lounges. For a tasteful (and tasty), easy to carry, last minute gift from Mexico, I recommend the little shop that sells handmade chocolates in small painted tin boxes in the departure area (after security) in T2. I don´t remember the name of the store but it is near the end of the line of shops, closer to the national departures.

  15. Esther Klein Buddenhagen says:

    Thank you very much for your comments on Mexico City. We’ve lived in the state of Veracruz in a colonia of Xico for over eight years. It is definitely not Gringolandia and we love it. We are definitely not in the thrall of narcotrafico, but it is hard to convince friends and family of that, let alone convince them of the many charms and kindnesses our section of the country offers us.