May 31, 2012
By Dan Namowitz
Mexico has begun to detain flights on the ground or deny access to airspace if an aircraft’s operator is listed as owing fees buried in the country’s tax code for air traffic services or control tower overtime.
Making matters worse, some commercial handlers of flights owing fees have charged exorbitant amounts for their services, AOPA has learned.
The problem is “insidious in nature” because pilots who owe fees may be unaware that they were being charged for using air traffic services, said Rick Gardner, aviation services director for Caribbean Sky Tours and AOPA’s authorized representative for the Bahamas, Caribbean, Mexico, and Central America.
Airspace fees for aircraft that take off or land in Mexico are covered with a fee based on the aircraft’s wingspan which is charged each time an aircraft is fueled in Mexico. However, fees for using air traffic control services outside of normal hours or airspace fees for flights not landing or taking off from Mexico have to be paid directly to Mexico’s tax authorities.
The regulations and fee schedules are published in Mexico’s tax code, but not in Mexico’s aviation regulations or aeronautical information publication. Mexico’s Servicios a la Navegación en el Espacio Aéreo Mexicano (SENEAM), which operates infrastructure including controllers, radar facilities, and towers, is responsible for charging the fees, but is barred from issuing invoices.
That creates a situation making users responsible for determining what fees are owed, and making payments. Those payments must be made electronically via a Mexican bank to the Mexican tax authorities, said Gardner. Direct payments to SENEAM at a Mexican airport are not possible, he added.
SENEAM keeps a list of aircraft with back charges, which it distributes to air traffic control centers and towers, he said.
The pilot may learn of a balance due when one of two things happens. If the pilot is overflying Mexico in an aircraft with a debt on record, the flight may be turned back from Mexican airspace—even after receiving a clearance. That poses safety concerns, especially if the flight is overflying the Gulf of Mexico.
If the flight is headed for a destination in Mexico, it may be allowed to land, but then be detained without services until the fees are paid.
The charges have been on the books since 2005. Enforcement was only ramped up after tax code reforms took effect in December 2011, Gardner said.
On May 25, Gardner reported that five aircraft were grounded because they were owned by entities listed by Mexico as having unpaid fees. Two of the aircraft were air ambulances owned by a single U.S. operator, he said.
The list was subsequently updated, and now includes several well-known corporate aircraft operators—in some cases including parties who owed less than one U.S. dollar, he said.
“What is very scary is that if an operator has 20 aircraft registered in their name and one aircraft is in arrears, all aircraft are put on the list,” Gardner told AOPA in an email message. “I am sure that there are very upset aircraft operators learning that they are being detained because of a debt owed by another aircraft that they do not operate.”
Caribbean Sky Tours can provide more information, and offers services to help members avoid or extricate themselves from difficulties associated with researching and paying the charges, including an English translation of the applicable articles of the Mexican tax code, rates and calculation methods, and this detailed discussion of the issue.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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