Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the Sunport clarified Tuesday that Volaris sought an additional $32,000 per roundtrip flight from Albuquerque and Chihuahua instead of a total of $32,000 from the two.
A new direct flight between the Albuquerque International Sunport and the city of Chihuahua, Mexico, has been scrapped less than two weeks after it was to have begun, with local officials contemplating legal action against the airline.
The flight, offered by the low-cost discount airline Volaris, was intended to link Albuquerque and a Mexican sister city with which it shares cultural and economic ties.
The parties announced a 12-month agreement in February, but last week Volaris told city staff it would not deliver the service unless the two cities coughed up a combined $32,000 per roundtrip flight, Jonathan Small, marketing manager for the Sunport, told the Journal.
After consulting, the two cities opted not to pay.
“They kind of pulled the rug out from under us,” Small said.
A spokeswoman from Volaris was not immediately available for comment.
Signs that the new service was in peril began to materialize last week.
A planned news conference to celebrate the flight’s maiden voyage was abruptly canceled on June 25, and a customer service representative for Volaris confirmed that the airline wasn’t flying to Albuquerque at all.
At least one customer – New Mexico resident and government transparency advocate Dianne Goodman – who bought tickets when the flight was announced had her purchase abruptly canceled last week.
“We’re not an international airport anymore,” Goodman said. “That’s the reality of it.”
Last summer, Volaris announced a new round-trip direct flight from Albuquerque to Guadalajara, but Small confirmed the flight was no longer available in June, less than a year after it was announced.
The Sunport has long struggled to attract and retain direct flights to Mexico.
Jerry Pacheco, executive director of the New Mexico International Business Accelerator and a Journal columnist, said the most successful flight from Albuquerque to Mexico was offered by Frontier Airlines during the early 1980s. The flight originated in Denver, but stopped in Albuquerque before flying to Mexico.
Pacheco said the flight was canceled and the route abandoned after the airline filed for bankruptcy in 1986.
Since then, several airlines have tried establishing international routes, with limited success. Pacheco said there have been multiple attempts to establish flights to Chihuahua, the northern Mexican state that roughly four-fifths of New Mexico residents from Mexico are from. The most recent flight to the city of Chihuahua was canceled in 2009, according to Journal archives.
“This would be the fourth or fifth time that we’ve tried to establish a flight to Mexico,” Pacheco said.
New Mexico remains the only border state that lacks a direct commercial flight to Mexico, he said. Until an international flight gets established, New Mexico remains at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to attracting business and tourism dollars from across the border.
“Getting people to casinos in Albuquerque, getting them to the ski slopes, is made infinitely easier by having direct flights,” Pacheco said.
The Chihuahua flight was slated to begin operating in June, with tickets going on sale earlier in the year.
During a June event where Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and Chihuahua mayor María Eugenia Campos Galván signed a copy of a bilateral agreement allowing both cities to share resources more easily, Keller said Volaris was “testing” different destinations from Albuquerque, including Chihuahua, to determine their viability.
“Basically, we’re in transition, and we’re continuing to test new routes,” Keller said Wednesday. “And we’re going to try to do that for as long as we can.”
As recently as last Friday, Sunport spokeswoman Stephanie Kitts told the Journal that the flight was still slated to run twice weekly through October.
For residents like Goodman, who purchased a round-trip flight to Chihuahua in May, the abrupt change means canceled plans.
Goodman said she was notified last week that her upcoming flights had been canceled. When she called Volaris, the airline told her that it couldn’t offer an alternate route from Albuquerque.
“It ruined my trip,” she said.
Small confirmed that the city is contemplating legal action against Volaris, but did not elaborate. In the meantime, he said the Sunport is still working with other airlines to establish a commercial flight to Mexico.
“We’re actively looking for our next partner,” Small said.