Air Transport World

Flying down to Mexico: Continental and American strike it rich south of the border.(COMPETITION)

BARACK OBAMA AND HILLARY Clinton may be debating the merits of NAFTA, the continually controversial North American Free Trade Agreement, but such is not the case at Continental Airlines and American Airlines.

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NAFTA gave birth to malquiladoras--some 3,000 south-of-the-border factories where inexpensive Mexican labor produces duty-free, tariff-free parts and products for US companies. The problem was, air access to those facilities was poor. In the mid-1990s, "air service to Mexico required that people in Chihuahua, Torreon and Saltillo would have to fly down to Mexico City and then make northward connections to the United States," says CO MD-Planning Buddy Anslinger. If the malquiladoras was in the northern reaches of the country, that meant a 2-3-hr. flight merely to get to Benito Juarez International in Mexico City. Time-pressured business types, he says, "were going way out of their way to get to the United States."

And so it was that Anslinger decided "to pretend there wasn't a border there"--to render Houston Intercontinental a transborder regional jet launch pad, a place from which to probe cities no North American airline ever had before. Tampico was a natural to test his thesis. Petroleum is that city's reason for being economically and Houston is the oil capital of the planet. Started in the late 1990s, the route worked.

While ERJ-145 service from IAH to Tampico wasn't much of a reach, what Anslinger soon tried was. Next came regional jet nonstops to Saltillo, Torreon and Chihuahua, cities with malquiladoras that supported for the most part the automobile industry. "Those were," he remembers, "a step off the cliff. …

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