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