Latin American and Caribbean airline leaders meeting at the annual ALTA forum in Panama City Oct. 29 emphasized a coordinated and vigorous approach to digital modernization, decreased regulation and infrastructure improvements as vital to meeting the demands of a forecast doubling of air traffic in the region in 10 years.

“My number one headache, by far, is the state of airports in Latin America,” Avianca CEO Hernan Rincon said. “Every single airport is at maximum capacity.”

While infrastructure developments at several regional airports were lauded—including construction of a new terminal extension at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, highly visible to attendees flying in for the ALTA conference—the results of the Mexican national consultation on the future of the new Mexico International Airport (NAIM) caused considerable disappointment at the outset of the ALTA meeting. After a four-day vote in which just over 1 million people (just over 1% of the Mexican voter population) participated, further construction on NAIM was rejected by about 70% of voters.

“I believe we are headed for an infrastructure crisis, and that includes Latin America,” IATA CEO and DG Alexandre de Juniac said in a speech at the conference. “This capacity challenge at the key hub locations such as Buenos Aires, Bogota, Lima, Mexico City, Havana and Santiago are very well documented. Unless they are addressed properly, the region’s economies will suffer. If planes cannot land, the economic benefits that they bring will fly elsewhere.”

“Do governments understand this? Sometimes it’s hard to tell,” de Juniac said, referring to the consultation vote result on NAIM. “If it means to cancel the new airport, it will be very bad news for aviation and very bad news for Mexico.”

“This country and this city needs desperately to increase the capacity at their airport. We need a new airport and we need it quickly. Canceling the project will delay everything by five to 10 years, it would be a disaster,” de Juniac said at a press conference later in the day. “If the new airport is canceled and nothing significant is done the number of passengers in [Mexico City] in 2035 will be less than the 20 million [more] per year that it would with the new airport. The estimation is $20 billion lost GDP, and 200,000 jobs less than expected. It will be a major impact for Mexico, which is a dynamic country, very highly viewed in terms of tourism … they have strong airlines that are working well, are competitive, [and are] very highly regarded in the world.”

In a press conference held in Mexico City Oct. 29, Mexican president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador said his government will obey the citizen’s “mandate” and will move forward with construction of two runways at Santa Lucía, a military airbase north of Mexico City Airport, as well as improvements at Benito Juárez International Airport (MEX) and a “reactivation” of Toluca International Airport, an operational airport 40 miles west of Mexico City. Obrador said the plan will resolve the saturation at MEX “in a short time,” a claim disputed by numerous analysts and associations, including IATA.

Meanwhile, the ALTA Leaders forum continued with its agenda to focus on connectivity as central to ensuring continued economic and social growth, as well as development for the region.

Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela opened the ALTA forum with an unmistakably globalist message, emphasizing aviation connectivity as the means for labor migration, social growth and institutional development.

“Global tourism promotes the redistribution of wealth; it promotes peace and harmony,” Varela said. “We live in a globalized world. … We are more connected, and we have more opportunities to obtain sustainable goals in air travel, human social interaction and knowledge connectivity.”

Mark Nensel, mark.nensel@informa.com