100 Years Ago, Mexico’s First Airline Took To The Skies

On July 12, 1921, Mexico’s first carrier, Mexicana de Aviación, was born. The iconic carrier was one of the oldest commercial airlines ever to operate. Nevertheless, Mexicana ceased operations in 2010, leaving a commercial gap in the country. Let’s find out more about Mexicana’s history.

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Mexicana was one of the oldest airlines in Latin America; today, it would have turned 100 years old. Photo: Getty Images

How was it born?

Two US citizens, L.A. Winship and Harry J. Lawson launched the Compañía Mexicana de Transportación Aérea a la Sazón, or CMTA. This airline had a starting fleet of Lincoln Standard biplanes. The first routes connected Mexico City with Tampico and Matamoros. At that time, Tampico and Matamoros were critical cities because they are close to the oil bases in the Gulf of Mexico.

Then in August 1924, George Rhil and William Mallory launched Compañía Mexicana de Aviación. This second airline also flew between Mexico City and the oil towns of Tampico and Matamoros.

The first airline, CMTA, quickly ceased operations, never merging with Compañía Mexicana de Aviación. Nevertheless, when it folded, the fleet of three Lincoln Standard aircraft was sold to Compañía Mexicana de Aviación, which allowed the latter to start flying.

In Latin America, Mexicana de Aviación was the second-oldest airline, after Avianca. Other old Latin American carriers are Lloyd Aéreo Boliviano (1925), Varig in Brazil (1927), LAN in Chile (1929), and Cubana de Aviación (1929).

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Mexicana flew to many destinations in North America, South America, and Europe. Photo: Makaristos via Wikimedia Commons.

Mexicana’s growth

In 1925, Mexicana de Aviación expanded its route map, launching its first flights to Brownsville in the United States. Four years later, the Mexican carrier also started operating directly to Guatemala.

One of Mexicana’s early highlights was its connection with Charles Lindbergh, the famous American pilot. Lindbergh flew the route Mexico City-Tampico-Brownsville using a Ford Trimotor aircraft.

Slowly but surely, Mexicana increased its operations in Mexico, the US, and Latin America. The carrier was backed by US giant Pan American (which held up to 45% of Mexicana at some points).

In 1957, Mexicana ordered four Douglas DC-7 aircraft and launched routes to Chicago, San Antonio, and Los Angeles. Two years later, it got three Comet IV C, becoming the first Latin American airline to enter the jet era.

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At some point, Mexicana became the Boeing 727-200 largest non-US operator. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia Commons

Mexico’s economic issues, Mexicana’s troubles

The 1960s and 1970s were arguably the best two decades of Mexicana’s history, despite the airline almost going bankrupt in 1967.

In the seventies, Mexicana started operating Boeing airplanes. By 1989, Mexicana had 44 Boeing 727-200, the largest non-US fleet of this type anywhere.

Nevertheless, it was in the 1980s when Mexicana’s issues started, right about the same time when Mexico’s economy entered into turmoil.

In 1982, the Mexican Government bought 54% of the carrier. The local authorities held both Mexicana and Aeromexico as separate entities. In the early nineties, Mexicana became a private airline again, but it wasn’t too long before another Mexican crisis (in 1995) hit the carrier hard. The Mexican government saved Mexicana again.

During the nineties, Mexicana started operating Airbus A320 planes and Fokker 100 and Boeing 757s. In the year 2000, it joined Star Alliance (though by 2007, it jumped to oneworld).

In 2005, then Mexico’s president Vicente Fox decided to sell Mexicana de Aviación to Gastón Azcárraga, a businessman. He bought the carrier for US$165.5 million (when the actual value of the company was over US$400 million).

Azcárraga mishandled the airline and took it to the ground. Mexicana officially ceased operations on August 28, 2010.

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There are rumors about restarting Mexicana, but nothing concrete yet.  Photo: Getty Images

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What has happened since?

Since Mexicana folded, the Mexican aviation industry has grown intensely. Three low-cost airlines used Mexicana’s demise to expand: Volaris, Viva Aerobus, and Interjet. The latter has also ceased operations.

Meanwhile, the Mexicana topic has been politicized, and there’s no solution in sight. Each president since 2010 has promised to relaunch the carrier, but none has done anything to achieve it.

If you go to Mexico City’s International Airport Terminal 1, you can see Mexicana’s workers permanently holding the airline’s check-in facilities.

The ugly truth is Mexicana may never fly again. In the future, someone may try to launch a new carrier and use the Mexicana brand (similar to what Ecuatoriana Airlines is doing). Still, most likely, it won’t be the original Mexicana de Aviación.

Did you ever fly with Mexicana de Aviación? How was it? Let us know in the comments.