FAA Rebuke Spurs Mexico to Add Back Air Safety Inspectors

Mexico’s civil aviation authority is getting a budget lift of about 40% and hiring 180 new inspectors, an effort it hopes will reverse a U.S. air-safety downgrade that the agency’s director acknowledged was partly prompted by spending cuts.

The roughly 150 million-peso ($7.5 million) increase will also go to raise wages and improve flight crew training in English, according to Carlos Antonio Rodriguez Munguia, the head of Mexico’s Federal Civil Aviation Agency (AFAC). Both are areas the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration found to be inadequate, along with lack of inspectors, Rodriquez told Bloomberg News in an interview.

The downgrade Tuesday blindsided Mexico, which believed it had completed 97% of the FAA’s requirements, including making changes to aeronautical law, Rodriguez said. The FAA has yet to meet with its Mexican counterparts since the decision, he said, and the Mexican officials are trying to arrange a meeting.

Reducing the nation’s airline industry to the FAA’s lowest safety ranking “surprised us a lot because we assumed we had completed nearly all the actions we had to take,” Rodriguez said. Since the downgrade, “we’ve had no clarification of what we missed or where we failed.”

FAA Rebuke Spurs Mexico to Add Back Air Safety Inspectors

The FAA’s decision puts a major cloud over a country that has consistently been the top foreign destination for U.S. travelers. The downgrade doesn’t affect existing flights to the U.S. on Mexican airlines, but stops them from adding services. It also ends Delta Air Lines Inc.’s ability to sell tickets on Aeromexico flights and a similar cooperation agreement between Volaris and Frontier Airlines Holdings Inc.

U.S. officials believe they have given Mexican authorities full details about the issues that need resolving, said a person familiar with that country’s actions who wasn’t permitted to speak publicly. The U.S. has also offered Mexico expertise and other assistance, the person said.

Lack of English

Rodriguez said that during the review, the FAA listed past failings over safety, including some crews having dangerously low levels of English and that Mexico hadn’t properly implemented a system to report defects or mechanical failures to plane manufacturers.

“They have had incidents in which safety has been put at risk due to a lack of adequate understanding of the language,” Rodriguez said, referring to comments the FAA made during its audit.

Rodriguez said he hopes Mexico can resolve the issue within a month by detailing its efforts to address the FAA’s complaints. It could take two to three months, however, if the Mexican authorities need to wait until new training is completed.

The AFAC’s budget has been dramatically cut over the past decade and has been slashed heavily since President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador took office in 2018. Those cuts have made it more difficult to retain staff and keep up training standards, said Rodriguez, who hopes to retain the new budget increase into 2022.

“There are a lot people who leave and get a better paid job in the industry due to the experience gained at AFAC,” said Rodriguez. “With a reduced budget it’s also difficult to have adequate training with the frequency that’s needed.”

Hiring Inspectors

Similar issues with a lack of staffing helped lead to the FAA’s downgrade of Mexico’s air-safety standing in 2010, said another person familiar with the earlier action. He asked not to be named discussing sensitive diplomatic matters. The FAA returned Mexico to a passing rating within months in 2010, partly because it was able to quickly hire more inspectors, the person said.

Mexico has joined another eight nations listed as what FAA calls “Category 2” for not meeting international safety standards, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Venezuela and Thailand. The FAA audits look at whether nations have adequate aviation regulations and the ability to enforce them.

Other FAA complaints included that Mexico had failed to quickly certify new types of technology, such as advances allowing two-engine planes to fly transatlantic trips, Rodriguez said. It also pointed to failures to update certification processes for airlines.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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