It’s important for GA users to understand the local rules and regs, and to carry hard copies of all required paperwork.
By Grant McLaren
While business aviation traffic remains strong to many work and leisure destinations in Mexico, tourism-related general aviation (GA) has been down somewhat over the past year, say international support providers (ISPs).
In spite of this, Mexico continues to maintain its place as a frequent and inviting country for N-registered private and charter ops.
However, in order to ensure a successful journey to this part of the world, it’s important to understand both the rules and potential operating idiosyncrasies. “GA traffic has not been too rosy lately, in part because foreign investment in Mexico is down and current government policies may be perceived as less business-friendly,” declares Manny Aviation Services & Manny’s Catering Mexico Managing Dir Manuel Romero Vargas Jr.
“But there are many positives to consider. Traffic to popular resort destinations remains strong, ground support options continue to improve, and we’re a welcoming destination for business aviation.”
Main business and tourism spots
Popular tourism locations include SJD (San José del Cabo), CSL (Cabo San Lucas), CUN (Cancún) and PVR (Puerto Vallarta), with peak tourism season running from mid-November through late April.
Primary business destinations include TLC (Toluca), MTY (Monterrey del Norte) and QRO (Querétaro), although GA movements are down to BJX (Guanajuato) and SLP (San Luis Potosí). Recommended tech stops include QRO and ACA (Acapulco), where services are quick and congestion is minimal.
“A tech stop at TLC can be a highly complex and slow procedure, with turn times well over one hour,” says Vargas. “At TLC, you’ll need to clear customs, immigration and quarantine on both arrival and departure, and you’ll have to reposition for fuel uplift.” Charter operators need to be mindful that review and scrutiny of documentation has increased and become more commonplace.
Digital copies of Mexican insurance policies are not always accepted, so it’s always best to have an original hard copy on board. Note also that every process and application submitted to AFAC (the Mexican Civil Aviation Federal Agency) must name a legal representative via a power of attorney. Meanwhile, a new airport slated to serve Mexico City seems to be going nowhere.
Construction of a new facility at NLU (Santa Lucia AFB), about 14 miles from MEX (Mexico City), was suspended by the new government about a year ago, and a planned highway has not yet been put in.
ISPs say handling services are generally good in Mexico – sometimes very good. “You’ll not find FBOs outside major business and tourism destinations, but support services will be at least adequate,” says Jeppesen Vendor Relations Specialist Jeff Rupprecht.
“A good local ground handler will keep you on schedule and help protect you from unknowingly getting into trouble.” Avfuel Account Manager David Kang adds, “The key here is to deal with reputable and efficient local handlers. A lot of shady handling activity goes on, so it’s important to use legitimate and vetted handlers.
Someone who approaches you for handling could just be some random guy hanging out on the ramp. We’ve had clients in the past who were busted by airport authorities for using these back-door handlers.”
Private and charter permits
ITPS Ops Mgr Ben Fuller points out that, while there have been no major regulatory changes in Mexico, ramp checks have been elevated. “Local officials are still on the lookout for charter ops not properly declared as charter, and they want to ensure you have correct, valid and required documentation on board,” he says.
Both single and multi-entry landing authorizations (MEAs) are available for private ops to Mexico. Single-landing authorization is usually issued on arrival, after providing aircraft and pilot documents.
Private MEAs can also be obtained upon arrival at some airports, or via Mexican authorities in Mexico City. ISPs recommend frequent operators obtain an MEA valid for a calendar year, as it can save money and time. “In our experience, having an annual private permit usually pays you back within about 3 trips, while making life and trip planning easier,” continues Kang.
In the realm of charter ops, both single-landing authorizations and indefinite blanket permits (IBPs) are possible. Since single-landing authorizations can be time consuming, plan on at least 4 hours before takeoff to complete the permit process. Be mindful that Mexican CAA will cut charter operators off, at some point, in their ability to obtain 1-time permits.
The good news is that, once you’ve submitted an IBP application, you’ll be permitted single charter landing authorizations while it’s in process. Moreover, IBPs provide the benefits of covering an entire fleet, saving time and operational costs while being relatively easy to modify in terms of adding or removing aircraft from your fleet.
Cabotage is always a consideration with AFAC. “There are numerous cases in which approvals or denials for operations considered to be cabotage have indicated varying interpretations made using different criteria,” says Vargas. “Every time cabotage is suspected, it’s best to verify and check with your handler to avoid issues.”
Foreign-registered charters are not normally permitted to make more than 1 stop in Mexico,” reminds Vargas. “Each airport comander, however, has authority to grant special authorizations as he/she sees fit.
Have a discussion with your ISP or local handler in advance to avoid any problems.” Kang says that, while permit enforcement has become stricter, AFAC has clarified rules on what constitutes cabotage.
“Private operators can generally move freely within Mexico, even when carrying Mexican nationals. But, for domestic circulation as a charter, you’ll need express permission from AFAC, which can be problematic, particularly for shorter-notice ops.” Note that Mexico has no requirement for overflight permits.
You must, however, keep track of your overflights and ensure that applicable nav fees are paid, otherwise you’ll find yourself blocked from Mexican airspace at some point.
Charter operators must always carry insurance policies issued by a Mexican company, but private operators are technically not required to do so. “Unfortunately, insurance requirements for private ops in Mexico remain a gray area,” explains Vargas. “While Mexican insurance is mandatory under law for charter, a general worldwide policy is technically acceptable for private ops.
The problem is that many local airport authorities want and expect to see Mexican policies for all operators.” Likewise, Kang recommends that all operators have Mexican insurance policies.
“Airport comandantes often insist on seeing a Mexican insurance policy. If you don’t have this, you could end up arguing with local authorities when you arrive,” he says.
Cost of operations
Mexico is considered a reasonably priced operating environment, compared to Europe or Asia. However, it’s generally more expensive than the US, Canada or South America. Note that permit prices tend to be updated annually, and nav fees for overflights must be paid in a timely manner.
Overflight fees must be paid directly from a Mexican bank account, or your local handler can do this for you to avoid potential fines. “Operating to CUN, CSL or TLC can cost you $3500–4000 per stop, while landing at smaller locations may run closer to $1200–1500 per stop,” estimates Kang. “Expect costs to be higher than normal at locations with only 1 handler on the field, as you’ll have no alternative.”
Documentation and procedures
There are mandates concerning equipment requirements for all operators wishing to obtain or renew their aircraft operating certificate (AOC). If you do not have all specified equipment, Mexican authorities will reject permit requests.
CAA may verify aircraft and crew documentation at any time. Be prepared for random ramp checks by having original hard copies of aircraft documents, as well as licenses and insurance.
Passports are a requirement for all nationalities entering Mexico, including US citizens. Also, any crew changes must be communicated to your ground handler, as failure to do so will invalidate your landing authorization or MEA. “If the crew is modified, your single-landing authorization or MEA will normally be cancelled, and a new request must be presented,” points out Vargas.
Private letter requirement
For all private GA ops to Mexico, a letter should be carried and forwarded to your ground handler on a per-flight basis. It must specify that your flight is for private purposes. If you do not have this letter, you can expect delays and a hard time, especially at popular destinations. “This private ops letter needs to be sent to your local handler prior to each flight into Mexico,” says Jeppesen Vendor Relations Specialist Scott Taylor.
“It states the purpose of your flight and the name of the lead passenger with his/her connection to the company. This letter is just another way to help separate legitimate private flights from charter flights disguised as private.”
Additional information to be submitted with this letter, on company letterhead, includes date of operation, company name, aircraft type, registration number, and full flight schedule. You’ll need to specify if the primary passenger is the owner or a representative of the company, and if he/she will be accompanied by staff or relatives.
Corruption and graft
Making side payments to airport comandantes or support providers is considered malpractice. “Always ensure that your local handlers are not complicit in giving graft to government officials, as we all need to fight against corruption,” states Vargas. Kang adds, “Reputable handlers don’t want you to give out cash tips.
Back-door tipping is discouraged, and efforts are being made to remove ground handlers that don’t have proper authorizations.” While it’s nice to think that graft and government corruption are things of the past, this is not necessarily the case.
“Any time you venture into Latin America, tips can help,” points out Fuller. “But side payments to government officials are fading compared to what they had been. When it does happen, ISPs often do not hear about it.”
Avoid temptations to self handle
ISPs rate support from very good to dismal, depending on location and ground handling. “Things may not always happen precisely and on time as they might in Switzerland, but things will get done eventually,” says Kang. “But don’t take chances with self handling because fuel trucks may not show up, catering may be delivered to the wrong side of the field, you could face language barriers, and you may need to pay kickbacks to secure services.
Reputable ground handlers know all the local contact numbers and will protect you from having to hand out tips here and there.” Vargas points out that at TLC it’s mandatory that all operators use a ground handler. “You need to do this to ensure a parking spot for embarkation/disembarkation.” he says. “Otherwise, you could end up on the far side of the field with hours-long delays.”
“Border towns in Mexico do have potential to be dangerous, but main tourist locations don’t seem any more dangerous today then they had been,” observes Kang. Thieves and drug cartel members have not been known to specifically target GA ops, so it’s usually not recommended or necessary to organize secure or armed local transport in Mexico.
However, it is advisable to practice common sense, be aware of your surroundings, use pre-vetted local transport, and be cautious when entering crowded areas. ISPs say the toll highway between TLC and Mexico City is considered safe, but Scott points out that you could be stopped and asked for money when traveling on some toll-free roads.
When landing in Mexico from South America, Central America or the Caribbean, you must first stop at either CZM (Cozumel) or TAP (Tapachula). This is mandatory for all ops other than diplomatic flights. The required security check may take up to a couple of hours and involves shutting down engines along with full security screening of aircraft, passengers and crew.
To avoid complications, carry complete hard copies of all required paperwork and make sure your insurance is current and valid. “Reporting a charter flight as private or having incomplete paperwork could result in hefty fines and having your aircraft grounded until fines are paid in full,” warns Vargas.
“Providing all necessary information and paperwork to your handler in advance saves possible headaches and delays.” Kang reminds that, when flying to and within Mexico, it’s important that GA users fully understand the operating environment so that they know what they’re in for and are able to evaluate options.