SANTA LUCIA, Mexico (Reuters) -Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Monday opened a new Mexico City airport, over three years after he rattled investors by scrapping a $13 billion hub partly built by the previous government that he cast as corrupt.
The military air base north of the capital, which Lopez Obrador has turned into Felipe Angeles International Airport, started with just a handful of flights. It begins operations without a train connection, which is due to be ready next year.
Hundreds of soldiers milled around the airport, whose new buildings gleamed in bright sunshine, even as workers in orange and yellow vests continued work on parts of the site.
The airport is the first of the major infrastructure projects planned by Lopez Obrador to be launched, and is aimed at easing congestion at the current Mexico City hub that lies approximately 45 kilometers (28 miles) to the south.
The president held his regular morning news conference at the airport ahead of the opening ceremony, and quickly rounded on critics who had questioned whether it would be completed.
“This work was done in spite resistance from vested interests and people who wished us ill,” said Lopez Obrador, who is holding a recall referendum next month on his presidency in a bid to strengthen his democratic mandate.
Scores of musicians played in a brass band as supporters of the government displayed pro-Lopez Obrador placards.
The airport was built despite criticism from business groups that had backed the partly-built hub canceled by Lopez Obrador just a few weeks before he took office.
Following a contentious October 2018 referendum he promoted, Lopez Obrador ditched the unfinished airport in Texcoco on Mexico City’s eastern flank, arguing the project was riddled with corruption, geologically unsound, and too expensive.
The decision shook markets and set the tone for an often fractious relationship with business under his administration.
The government spent $1.8 billion paying off the Texcoco bondholders, adding to costs sunk into the canceled airport. Lopez Obrador then put the Mexican army in charge of building the new airport.
The government said this month the new hub would finally cost 74.5 billion pesos ($3.7 billion).
Mexico is mulling possible incentives to encourage airlines to move operations there from the current Mexico City hub, a senior official said this month.
Isidoro Pastor, chief executive of the new airport, told the news conference that flights to the United States were expected to begin in the second half of 2022 via Delta Airlines, Copa Airlines and an unidentified new carrier.
Some critics of the Felipe Angeles hub have questioned whether both airports will be able to operate properly simultaneously. The government is adamant that they will.
Screens at the airport showed initial flights going to Cancun, Tijuana, Merida, Guadalajara, Monterrey and Villahermosa in Mexico and Caracas, Venezuela.
Nasheli Martinez, a 40-year-old accountant from Mexico City, said she was nervous but excited as she prepared to travel to the beach resort of Cancun with her mother.
“We set off at 7 a.m. and it took two hours” to get to the airport, she said. “Because we got the maps going, and it sent us out onto dirt roads.”
($1 = 20.2835 Mexican pesos)
(Additional reporting by Dave Graham and Diego Ore; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Bill Berkrot)