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Every year, my mother-in-law stays with us for a month or two when the weather in her home state of Connecticut is at its coldest and wildest. During this last visit she decided to go to Mexico City. Devout bargain hunter that she is, Madre (as my mother-in-law likes to be called) started searching for cheap flights. The best she could come up with was an inconvenient flight on Continental that cost $385 plus fees. The rest of the flights — on US Airways, American, Mexicana, Aeroméxico, Alaska, United, and Northwest — were between $400 and $725. All had at least one stop in Phoenix, Houston, Los Angeles, or Los Cabos. Some featured turboprop connector flights. Madre hates turboprops. On a whim, she researched flights from Tijuana. She found nonstop, round-trip flights from between $102 and $250 on Mexican airlines.

Madre had stumbled into an ongoing price war fueled by the relatively new low-cost Mexican airlines Volaris, Avolar, and Alma de México. The price war has Mexico’s “Big Three” airlines — Mexicana, Aeroméxico, and Aviacsa — reeling and is pushing travel agencies in Tijuana further down the road to extinction.

On a cool day in March, Guillermo Gallegos, bundled up and sniffling due to a late-winter cold, walks into his Zona Rio travel agency and sits behind a sleek metal desk. He’s full faced with drooping eyelids and shoulders. A Vandyke beard conceals his double chin. He’s decked out in black slacks and a purple dress shirt. His two-toned gold watch and Italian loafers indicate affluence. But, like other tourism-based businesses in Tijuana, affluence for travel agencies is a thing of the past. “In the last month,” Gallegos says, “eight travel agencies have closed in Tijuana.”

Those closings were not isolated incidents, Gallegos says, but part of a trend that started four years ago, when “there were 135 travel agencies in Tijuana. Now there are about 70.”

Gallegos, who has worked as a travel agent for three decades, continues, “Travel in Mexico has changed, and the change has been prompted by the new low-cost airlines, Volaris, Avolar, and Alma. The changes benefit the consumer and negatively affect the other airlines in Mexico, which have a different format. For example, Aviacsa, out of 20 flights a day that it used to have from Tijuana, only 4 are left because they’ve lost so much of the market. With the costs so low in other airlines, Aviacsa can’t compete. Aeroméxico and Mexicana have cut flights too.”

Volaris began operations in February 2006. It has 30 daily departures from Tijuana. Alma, which specializes in short-hop flights, started four months later and has 10 departures from Tijuana per day. Tijuana-based Avolar first flew in September 2005 and sends 17 flights out of Tijuana every day. How much cheaper are these low-cost airlines? “For example,” Gallegos says, “during the week you can get [one-way] flights from Tijuana to Guadalajara for 1300 pesos on the low-cost airlines. Mexicana and Aeroméxico will cost you about 1000 pesos more, which is about $90 to $100 more each way.”

Gallegos says it’s “the structure of the low-cost airlines” that allows them to fly the same routes as Mexico’s Big Three at a much lower rate. “For example, Aeroméxico, Aviacsa, and Mexicana have their own maintenance facilities. They maintain their own planes. The traditional full-service airlines have a much larger personnel structure: reservations staff, services at the airport, maintenance. The low-cost airlines contract everything outside. So there’s no union they have to deal with. The full-service airlines give flight miles and things like that. The low-cost airlines don’t do that.”

Food-and-beverage service is also severely reduced, sometimes nonexistent, on the low-cost airlines. Their low prices have created many first-time flyers from the classes of Mexicans who have traditionally ridden the bus around the country. But because of deep cuts in the number of flights that Aeroméxico, Aviacsa, and Mexicana offer from Tijuana, Gallego says, “When you look at total passengers, it hasn’t been a huge increase. The major companies have cut back on flights in and out of Tijuana. The low-cost airlines have taken over. But passenger-wise, it really isn’t a huge increase, maybe 7 or 8 percent more.”

That 7 or 8 percent doesn’t amount to a 7 or 8 percent increase in business for Gallegos and his fellow travel agents. For one thing, the ticket prices, upon which their commissions are based, are lower. For another, “The low-cost airlines won’t give you the commission that Aeroméxico, Aviacsa, and Mexicana give.”

Depending on volume of tickets an agent sells and a few other factors, the Big Three airlines pay commissions of up to 12 percent. “The low-cost airlines,” Gallegos says, “pay no more than 6 percent.”

Carlos Cruz’s Turibaja travel agency sits in a strip mall in the Otay Mesa area of Tijuana, directly under the flight path east of Tijuana International Airport. The office is about half the size of an average 7-Eleven. Four desks, each bearing a computer at which a busy agent works, stand cleverly arranged in the tight office. The 38-year-old Cruz sits at the one farthest from the door. He’s dressed in a pressed gray dress shirt covered with a maroon V-neck sweater. He says my mother-in-law was smart to look to Tijuana to get a good flight deal to Mexico City. “Let me show you.” He taps away on his computer keyboard for a minute or two. “From San Diego to Mexico City, the cheapest price I’m getting is $500 round trip on Aeroméxico or Delta Airlines. And from Tijuana to Mexico City, it’s around $250 to $260 — basically 50 percent off — on Volaris and Avolar. Of course, Volaris is actually to Toluca [about an hour outside of Mexico City]. But they give you a free shuttle from Toluca to Mexico City.

“And there are other destinations that used to be very expensive that are now a lot cheaper. From Tijuana to Tapachula, Chiapas — all the way down near Guatemala — the price was around $300 one way. Now it’s $150 each way, 50 percent less.”

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Comments

Darren April 24, 2008 @ 1:36 a.m.

Johnny Vegas, I think you could be scaring people. I know many people who have flown out of TJ with ZERO problems, no shake-down, not money taken.

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JohnnyVegas April 23, 2008 @ 4:30 p.m.

I would NEVER use a Mexican airline flying out of TJ or any other Mexicn location.

The Police/Federalies will shake you down at the airport if you even have a scent of cash or money, or you are American.

Too much downside for the small savings you can get.

NEVER us a Mexican Airline unless it is flying out of the States.

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Ponzi April 23, 2008 @ 5:56 p.m.

Well right now the flights will be cheaper out of Mexico because their government setsfuel prices.

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JohnnyVegas April 23, 2008 @ 7:19 p.m.

The flights may be cheaper, but when the dirty TJ cops shake you down for all the money you have you will be out many times the money you save on the ticket.

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JohnnyVegas April 24, 2008 @ 8:29 a.m.

Darren, I can tell you the shake downs do happen, and because of it I would warn everyone that they better beware, and ready, of such actions.

It is no different from driving a car in Mexico and getting pulled over for no reason (besides the fact you have American plates) and being told you violated some bogus traffic law and it will take a $40 payment, in cash and on the spot, to leave. That happenes to virtually every American who drives in Mexico, why would you think it is any different for air travel?If anything the shake down would be more prevelant at the airport because air travelers would appear to be of more means.

Mexico is a highly corrupt country, where 50 families own 90% of the wealth and over half of it's 110 million residents live in poverty- it got that way for a good reason.

Shake downs of Americans are a way of life in Mexico.

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Joaquin_de_la_Mesa April 24, 2008 @ 10:27 a.m.

Johnny, I've been driving into Mexico for ten years now. Never even been pulled over. I have friends who have, of course, but my point is, it's not universal. BTW, it 10% of the people who own 90% of the wealth.

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Darren April 25, 2008 @ 2:59 a.m.

Hi JohnnyVegas,

I appreciate the cautions. I usually don't drive down there. I use to drive a Jetta there and was not bothered. I had to drive an expensive kind of car for some clients (transporting them), and I was shaken down for some money, and paid it, for illegally parking. I think it was $40 to 2 state officers. I understand/respect their system/traditions/customs. At least I don't go into a FED/STATE/LOCAL databases like here, for a traffic infraction. There is corruption, and now lots of turf wars with violence against mostly foe elements, but also some innocents getting caught in crossfire. Some Americans are getting kidnapped, that is true. I believe though the percentage is fairly low. I use to take a friend down there, she was getting some medical care, and I'm gringo she Mexican. I never had any problems although I walked into TJ, parking my car on this side of border. Honestly with the corruption, I believe we have it widespread here too. Look at the pensions that have been robbed. Look at DUI checkpoints where we are sold they are for DUIs but the cop stats show that most the cars impounded have nothing to do with DUI. A father who missed a child support pymt. to the courts, he is subject to having his car impounded/towed at a DUI checkpoint. If that is not corruption, besides a breach of our 4th Amendment rights, I don't know what else is.

My friend has flown on the airlines out of TJ on many occasions to her hometown down farther in Mexico. She has never had any problems with airline service, schedule, reliability.

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Joe May 1, 2008 @ 5:32 p.m.

Hi Johnny Vegas,

Let me tell you that in my experience the new Mexican carriers have really changed air travel in Mexico.

For example Volaris has a shuttle service in and out of downtown San Diego which takes away all the hassle of driving into TJ. This service is only for Volaris' customers and you can buy it on line at their web page for only $15 each way.

Once in TJ you can experience flying on brand new planes with on board entertainment and free snacks and drinks (even a good tequila is complimentary).

They have tons of destinations and they even offer an on-time guarantee! If the flight arrives more than 30 minutes after its scheduled time, you get a credit for the whole amount you paid for that trip which you can use in the next 90 days. I have not seen any other airline that offers that in the US or Mexico.

Try it and change the way you feel about flying from TJ!

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kishoreseo Oct. 22, 2009 @ 11:02 p.m.

For more details on Alma de Mexico Airlines like Information, history, baggage details, check in, destinations, fleets, images and more visit "Altiusdirectory.com". This URL may be useful.

http://www.altiusdirectory.com/Travel/alma-de-mexico-airlines.php

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David Dodd Oct. 22, 2009 @ 11:10 p.m.

Johnny, feel free not to come to Mexico ever, fine with us.

For everyone else, he's wrong. If you can save some cash flying out of Tijuana, you should. The cops and Federal Officers are not going to "shake you down", they're sort of busy at the moment fighting the drug cartels. Your options at getting to the airport are many. My advice is to leave the car at home and take the trolley to the border. Cross, and either go into Downtown Tijuana or else go right upon entering Mexico and get a cab. Your fare to the airport (aeropuerto) should be ten dollars (generous for both parties), negotiate it beforehand.

And, take a passport.

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