MEXICALI, Mexico – Among travelers, it’s jokingly known as Aeromigrante – Migrant Air.
New discount airlines in Mexico are doing a brisk business shuttling migrants to the U.S. border, turning what was once a dayslong 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 last two years. Older carriers such as Aero California and Aviacsa have cut their 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 such as 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 poor 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 that they are going to cross the U.S. border illegally.
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!” shouted taxi dispatcher Javier Montaño 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.
Until the flood of discount airlines began in 2005, air travel in Mexico was too expensive for most poor Mexicans. A one-way flight from Central Mexico to Tijuana ran $300 or more on the country’s two flag carriers, Aeromexico and Mexicana.
For most migrants, getting to the border meant days of travel on long-distance buses. For the very poor it meant a harrowing and illegal ride on Mexico’s railways while clinging to a freight car. Bandits and harassment from highway police were a constant problem.
Migrants said one factor drawing them to airlines is the increasing difficulty of crossing the border. As the United States builds fences and adds Border Patrol agents, smugglers known as coyotes or polleros have raised their fees from $1,000 to $2,000 or more.
Some of the discount airlines’ fares and routes reflect their emphasis on migrants headed north, said Ceceña of Avolar.
On the day that Torres flew to Mexicali, the 144-seat Volaris jetliner was mostly full. On the return trip a week later, there were 31 passengers.
“People can say what they want, Migrant Air or whatever,” Ceceña said. “It’s a good business for us, and we’re going to keep taking care of those customers.”