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Mexican Airlines' Safety Rating Dropped — Which Means Fewer Flights To The U.S.

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Mexico's airline industry is on the defensive after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration downgraded the country's air safety rating yesterday. The FAA dropped Mexico to its lowest safety category after U.S. auditors determined the country was not following international standards. Mexico says it is. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Mexico's top carriers insist the problem is about paperwork and not the safety of their airlines.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The FAA downgrade comes just as air travel is rebounding, especially by Americans traveling to Mexico. Last month, more than 2 million passengers flew nonstop between the two countries.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: At Aeromexico, there is a new way to travel.

KAHN: Aeromexico, one of the country's top carriers, was touting its airline's COVID safety protocols in that ad. But executives today said overall, safety has always been priority No. 1. In a statement after stocks of the airline tumbled on news of the FAA downgrade, Aeromexico pointed out that the FAA decision was directed toward Mexico's Civil Aviation Authority and not Mexican airlines. Pilar Wolfsteller, an editor with the airline industry trade journal Flight Global, agrees.

PILAR WOLFSTELLER: So it has to do with the air safety inspectors in Mexico. It does not have to do with the actual safety of the aircraft or of the airlines that fly to and from Mexico.

KAHN: According to the FAA, its audit of Mexico's civil aviation regulatory agency began last October and ended in February of this year. Over that time, auditors found more than two dozen issues with Mexico's air safety oversight. The FAA didn't specify what those issues were, but said a downgrade to its lowest Category 2 rating could be about personnel training and record keeping. U.S. regulators will more closely monitor Mexican carriers coming into the U.S. for now. And Daniel Friedenzohn, at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, says the FAA is telling airlines they can't expand service in the U.S.

DANIEL FRIEDENZOHN: Until these issues get resolved, you know, you can't fly - you can't add any new service. You can't add any new markets. You can keep what you currently fly, but you just can't add to it.

KAHN: Mexico's president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, didn't comment today about the downgrade, but earlier this week appeared to question the U.S. decision. There are interests at play here, he said.

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PRESIDENT ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: American carriers will benefit from the downgrade, and it will hurt Mexican airlines, said the president. Mexico's transportation ministry says it will work with the FAA to meet international standards. In a statement, the ministry pointed out that it has had fewer personnel working due to the COVID pandemic.

But several trade associations and unions in Mexico placed blame on Lopez Obrador's administration and continual budget cuts that they say compromise safety. Jose Alfredo Covarrubias Aguilar is with the Union of Air Traffic Controllers in Mexico.

JOSE ALFREDO COVARRUBIAS AGUILAR: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: He insists Mexico's airspace is safe due to the professionalism of his members, but says the FAA downgrade is a wake-up call to regulators to do their jobs right. He says union members who've spoken out about safety concerns have faced reprisals. NPR's request for interviews with Mexico's transportation ministry and federal regulators were denied. President Lopez Obrador says he doesn't believe it will take much for Mexico to get back to the FAA's highest Category 1 safety rating. Back in 2010, a similar downgrade occurred, and Mexico rectified the situation within months.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.