The US Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) downgraded Mexico’s aviation safety rating from Category 1 to Category 2. 

The decision, which was announced by the agency on 25 May, will continue to allow Mexican airlines to fly into the US but cancel any expansion of flights as well as business arrangements between US and Mexican airlines will be curtailed. 

As reported by Bloomberg, the FAA’s decision was based on an audit where the regulator found 24 safety-related issues in Mexico’s aviation. 

“The FAA is fully committed to helping the Mexican aviation authority improve its safety oversight system to a level that meets ICAO standards,” read the FAA statement. “To achieve this, the FAA is ready to provide expertise and resources in support of the Agencia Federal de Aviacion Civil’s (AFAC) ongoing efforts to resolve the issues identified in the International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) process.”


FAA safety ratings: how the programme works

According to the FAA, the regulator is obliged by US law to test the safety requirements of all the countries that apply to fly inside the US airspace, by checking if they adhere to standards set by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO).

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“The FAA conducts assessments of air carriers operating to, from, or within the US under the International Aviation Safety Assessment (IASA) program to ensure compliance with International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standards,” a spokesperson tells Airport Industry Review. 

To make sure the safety of the national airspace, the agency conducts audits to see whether a country’s aviation regulator, not a single airline, can meet IASA’s standards and adhere to Annex 1, Annex 6 and Annex 8 of the Chicago Convention. 

The convention – which was initially signed in 1944 – sets out the basic standards and best practices signed for the global aviation industry. 

Annex 1 establishes the requirements needed by plane crews, while Annex 6 provides the ‘criteria for safe operating practices’, from performance for aeroplane characteristics to weather conditions. 

Annex 8 defines all the standards that make a plane airworthy such as the procedures for certification and the technical requirements needed to get an aircraft certified.

Mexico’s Category 2 certification was given by the FAA at the end of a three-stage audit process. 

“In October 2020, an FAA team conducted a virtual assessment of the aviation safety oversight provided by the Government of Mexico,” the FAA spokesperson adds. “The FAA and the AFAC met again in February 2021 to review the findings and to discuss progress made since the October assessment.

“On May 25, 2021, the FAA announced that Mexico does not comply with international safety standards set by ICAO.”

Category 2 countries – which include Venezuela and Pakistan – either lack the regulations to oversee their national carrier’s compliance with safety standards or their regulators are lacking in areas including inspection procedures or safety concern resolution. 

“A Category 2 finding is not a reflection of an airline’s ability to operate safely but rather of the regulator’s ability to carry out its responsibilities,” said the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in a statement to Airport Industry Review. “With safety always being the number one priority in aviation, IATA will gladly provide any expertise needed to help the competent authorities in Mexico remedy the FAA findings.

“Until Mexico regains the Category 1 rating, Mexican airlines cannot grow their network between Mexico and the US – IATA.”

The FAA strikes again

This is not the first time the FAA has downgraded Mexico’s safety certification, as it already happened in 2010.

As reported by Reuters, the US regulator decided to downgrade it to Category 2 as a result of a lack of flight inspectors, quoting its inability to fully comply with safety standards. 

“While Mexico has been responsive to the FAA’s findings and has made significant improvements in recent months, it was unable to fully comply with all of the international safety standards,” said the agency in a press statement. “However, under the leadership of Director General Hector Gonzalez Weeks, Mexico continues to make progress.

“The FAA is committed to working closely with the Mexican government and providing technical assistance to help Mexico regain its Category 1 rating.”

Despite the similarities, the situation is extremely different from what happened in 2010, Mexican authorities said. Since 2010, the country has taken important steps when it comes to aviation security, the creation of AFAC being the biggest of them. 

“The situation is very different,” commented Aeroméxico director Andrés Conesa. “We have better communication threads and greater coordination between authorities and airlines.

“A greater commitment will be necessary so that the true value that the airline industry generates in our country is recognised”.


Mexico’s reaction

Even though the pandemic brought the global aviation industry to a halt, Mexico increased its passenger volume during the pandemic, as traffic volume in 2021 increased by 10% compared to pre-pandemic times. 

Mexican carriers did not seem too bothered by the decision, with Aeromexico saying that it “continues to maintain the highest international safety standards and will continue its operations to the United States.” 

Low-cost carrier Volaris added things will not change much for the company. “Currently, we are operating at 113% capacity of what we had in 2019. Our operation levels in the US will remain the same until Mexico recovers its Category 1 status. As we had planned before, our growth plans will focus on the domestic and other markets we have the authorization to fly to.”

At the government level, the decision was met with mixed feelings. On the one hand, Mexico said it would fully cooperate with FAA but reiterated its commitment to comply with ICAO standards.

The Mexican Government held an inter-ministerial meeting to fully address the situation. At the table were present different stakeholders, including the general directors of major air carriers such as Aeroméxico and Volaris as well as the ministers of transport, communication, finance and foreign relations. 

After reviewing the audit’s results, Mexican authorities said that it was possible that auditors didn’t have all the information needed and requested a new meeting to fix the issue.

“We have sent the FAA administrator a new communication by email requesting an urgent meeting with its auditors, to jointly review the evidence submitted with our specialists,” said undersecretary of transportation Carlos Alfonso Morán Moguel. “At the same time, we express the need to resolve these issues as soon as possible.”