New discount airlines in Mexico are doing a brisk business shuttling migrants to the U.S. border, turning what was once a days-long trek into an easy hop for legions of workers, both legal and illegal.
“It’s much more comfortable than the bus and about the same price,” said Leopoldo Torres, 37, of Mexico City, as he stretched his legs aboard Volaris Flight 190 to the border city of Mexicali.
He and a traveling companion, Julio Menéndez, paid $118 each for the three-hour flight. They planned to cross into the United States illegally through the California desert.
Such migrants have become bread-and-butter customers for airlines Volaris, Avolar, Alma, Viva Aerobus, Interjet and Click, all of which have started up in the past two years. Older carriers such as Aero California and Aviacsa have cut their own prices to compete.
“The most productive routes we have are cities where you have those passengers who are traveling with the idea of the American Dream,” said Luis Ceceña, a spokesman for Avolar. About 70 percent of Avolar’s passengers are migrants, he said.
For some airlines like Avolar, the emphasis on migrant travel was a conscious decision, with company officials structuring their routes and fares around migrants’ needs, he said. For others, it was simply a side effect of low prices, which have opened up air travel to millions of poorer Mexicans.
The airlines say they treat migrants like any other passengers. The Mexican government has promised to try to slow emigration by creating jobs in Mexico. But by law, Mexican authorities and companies cannot impede the free travel of their fellow citizens, even if they suspect they are going to cross the U.S. border illegally.
Heading for the desert
Travelers planning to cross illegally are easy to spot. At the Hermosillo airport, a major crossroads for migrants headed to the Arizona desert, they are the men traveling in groups of three and four, wearing new sneakers or hiking boots and carrying nothing but backpacks.
“Altar! Naco! Nogales!” taxi dispatcher Javier Montaño shouted outside the airport as he directed travelers to vans headed to the main staging grounds for illegal border crossers.
Because of the increased traffic, Mexican immigration agents now check the IDs of all arriving passengers, even on domestic flights, to try to catch Central American migrants headed to the border. In Hermosillo, federal police conduct spot checks on the vans before they leave the airport.
“By law, we can’t stop the Mexican (migrants),” police Officer Carlos Zequera Arias said. “But the Central Americans are starting to get on these flights, too.”
The discount airlines cut costs by copying the business model of U.S. carrier Southwest Airlines. They fly out of smaller airports, make several stops on the same trip, bypass travel-agent fees by selling directly to customers, and concentrate on a few high-volume routes instead of a hub-and-spoke system.
Typical fares to Tijuana from Toluca, just east of Mexico City, are now around $150 on the discount airlines.
That has opened up air travel to millions of new customers, said José Calderoni, marketing director for Volaris. About one-third of the airline’s passengers have never flown before, he said.
Overall, the number of Mexicans flying has jumped 36 percent since 2004. About 13.4 million people took domestic flights from January to June, according to Mexico’s Institute of Statistics, Geography and Information Processing.
The discount airlines have been adding planes and routes at a breakneck pace. Avolar has grown from one jetliner and three destinations to nine with 16 destinations. Viva Aerobus has 21 destinations and plans to double its fleet to 10 jets from five. Interjet has nine planes and says it will order 20 more. Alma has 15 regional jets and 25 destinations, Volaris has 12 planes and 17 destinations, while Click has 26 destinations with 18 planes and six on order.