Cross-border bridge boosts Tijuana airport

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rsfrontAlongside a browned-out patch of earth about 20 miles south of downtown San Diego, one finds a study in contrasts.

Rising from ground level are a pair of border fences, one on the U.S. side, the other on the Mexico side, each fortified with barbed wire.

But spanning the border 390 feet over the top of those fences is an enclosed bridge that connects Tijuana's airport with the U.S.

The Cross Border Xpress (CBX), as the privately owned bridge and connected terminal on the U.S. side are called, has been open only since December 2015. But even as the Trump administration pushes to build a border wall, the CBX has flourished. In 2016, 1.3 million passengers made use of the bridge, and in 2017 the count topped 1.9 million, CBX said.

So far, a large majority of those customers have either been Mexican-Americans, Mexican immigrants visiting home or people coming to the U.S. from the Mexico side.

Now, say officials from CBX and Tijuana's dominant carrier, Volaris, it is time to turn the marketing focus to non-Hispanic Americans from Southern California in search of a Mexico vacation.

Miguel Aguiniga, Volaris' director of market development, said, "Mostly, it's going to be about price, the convenience of going across, the price savings of [flying] from Tijuana instead of the U.S."

CBX is owned by a combination of American and Mexican investors. Customers pay $16 one-way or $29 roundtrip to use the terminal. Parking at CBX costs $20 per day. Four car rental companies operate at the terminal, and a Starbucks is slated to open this spring.

Customers flying from the U.S. side can check in for their flight at CBX. They then pass through the U.S. customs station, displaying their airline ticket, which is uniquely required at this border crossing. From there, they cross the bridge into the Tijuana airport, where they go through Mexican immigration and airport security and then check their luggage before proceeding to the gates.

Outbound CBX customers are allowed to cross the border 24 hours ahead of their flight, leaving time for a visit to Tijuana. But Customs and Border Protection requires arriving passengers to cross into the U.S. within two hours.

Tijuana's airport has long drawn passengers from Southern California who are attracted to its wide selection of intra-Mexico routes. Volaris, Aeromexico, VivaAerobus and Interjet fly to a combined 33 Mexican locales from Tijuana. But the inconvenience of using the San Ysidro border crossing to reach the airport has long been a deterrent for potential passengers. Crossing into the U.S. there can often take two hours or more, while the typical customs line for those heading to the CBX terminal from Tijuana's airport is 15 minutes, according to Luis Palacios, CBX's chief commercial officer.

Statistics suggest that the CBX facility has already brought new customers to Tijuana. In 2016, CBX's first year of operation, the airport serviced 6.3 million passengers, up a robust 27% from a year earlier. Through the third quarter of last year, the passenger count was up an additional 15.2%, according to the financial filings of Grupo Aeropuerto del Pacifico, the Mexican company that operates the Tijuana airport and is an investor in CBX.

By comparison, the number of passengers at Tijuana grew 14% between 2013 and 2015, according to CBX.

Airlines, naturally, are taking notice of the change. Volaris cites the cross-border bridge as a key reason for its decision to begin flights in November from Tijuana to Guatemala City and San Salvador.

Aguiniga said the carrier has also increased frequencies on flights to the resort destinations Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta since the opening of CBX and launched Tijuana-Cancun service. He added that Volaris will expand its Tijuana route network this calendar year to include two additional, as-yet-unnamed resort locales.

In addition to Cabo, Cancun and Puerto Vallarta, Volaris currently flies to the beach destinations Mazatlan and Acapulco from Tijuana.

Still, both Aguiniga and Palacios say they have thus far done little to promote CBX to the non-Hispanic American market, which for the previous two years comprised only about 5% of the facility's users.

This year, Volaris and CBX will team up in a marketing campaign targeting leisure travelers. Among other efforts, Palacios said, CBX plans to begin offering custom packages for travel agents through its website by the end of June. The company has not yet decided if it will offer commissions, he said.

Other marketing plans include a social media campaign, outreach to major U.S. consumer travel publications and cross promotions with Mexican resort towns and cultural destinations.

One disadvantage Tijuana's airport has when it comes to attracting the vacation market is its dearth of frequencies to Mexican beach resorts. For example, while six carriers offer a combined nine flights on Saturdays alone from Los Angeles Airport to Los Cabos, only Volaris services the Tijuana-Los Cabos route, offering 10 departures per week, according to the Flight Connections website.

That disparity in competition helped make roundtrip airfares between Los Angeles and Los Cabos $194 cheaper, on average, in December than Tijuana-Los Cabos itineraries, according to the app Hopper, which tracks airfares for price-conscious shoppers. Hopper measures prices based on the fare paid by a traveler buying airfare that is cheaper than the fares paid by 90% of travelers.

On the other hand, Tijuana offered substantially cheaper fares to Mexico City than Los Angeles did, although both airports have several carriers flying the route.

Ultimately, Palacios said, the lower taxes on a domestic Mexican flight and cheaper overhead will benefit airlines operating to Mexico destinations from Tijuana. That, in turn, will draw customers to the CBX, he said.

"It's a world-class terminal, a border crossing that is second to none anywhere in the world, and the pricing structure will always be better," he said.

Source: Travel Weekly

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