Billionaire Carlos Slim came out in defense of the new Mexico City International Airport (NAICM) project yesterday in response to threats from the leading presidential candidate to abandon it if he wins office.
Mexico’s richest man, whose companies have an 8% investment interest in the new airport, told a press conference that suspending the project — as Andrés Manuel López Obrador has flagged he will do — would halt economic growth.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said last week that abandoning the project would lead to a US $20-billion reduction in Mexico’s gross domestic product (GDP) and the loss of 200,000 jobs.
Despite his concern, Slim remained confident that the project, designed by British architect Norman Foster and Slim’s son-in-law, Fernando Romero, will go ahead.
“. . . I’m optimistic, I see good, favorable things . . . it’s not about buying a car that’s cheaper than another, it’s a transcendent project, yes it could be done more cheaply but [that would be] putting a Band-Aid over what we already have,” he said in reference to López Obrador’s plan to keep the current airport and convert an existing military airport for commercial use.
The third-time candidate, who has a significant lead over his rivals in most opinion polls, has said that he will move to scrap the project if he becomes president, charging that it is corrupt and too expensive.
Slim hit back at the leftist former Mexico City mayor, asserting that his companies “have not participated in any act of corruption at any time” and declaring that it is not the place of candidates to get involved in the project.
“They have no reason to interfere . . . This is a decision that was taken five or six years ago, more; President Fox had made up his mind. It had to be debated when it was in the pipeline. Now, I don’t see why it’s being discussed,” he said.
The businessman said the new airport will trigger economic growth for the entire Mexico City metropolitan area, but would be particularly beneficial for the northeastern region of the city where it is being built.
The development could help establish a significant middle class in the area within just a few years, Slim said, although he added that improving and modernizing educational facilities would also be essential.
Slim criticized López Obrador’s proposal to use the Santa Lucía Air Force base in México state as an alternative airport, arguing that its distance from the city would mean that airport employees would face lengthy commutes. It would also act as a disincentive to tourism due to the long travel time between the airport and Mexico City.
Despite his staunch defense of the NAICM — of which companies he owns are co-designing, co-building and co-financing — not everything Slim had to say about the project was completely positive.
He argued that the whole project should have been contracted out to the private sector, charging that it is inevitable that a public infrastructure project will take longer and cost more than a private one.
Slim also said the risk of the US $13-billion airport sinking is a concern, acknowledging another criticism raised by López Obrador. However, he added that it was an issue faced by the entire city.
The airport is being built over land once covered by Lake Texcoco and extensive preparation of the site was required before any construction work could begin in order to slow down the inevitable sinking.
Responding to Slim’s comments, López Obrador accused the magnate of speaking on behalf of President Enrique Peña Nieto in order to apply the brakes to his campaign and the advancement of his Morena party.
“He’s a businessman, so he’s defending his interests, but I’m going to be president of Mexico and I’ll defend the interests of the people,” he declared.
Last month, the candidate for the “Together We Will Make History” coalition proposed that a special committee be established to undertake an analysis of the project before any decision to scrap it is taken.