MEXICALI, Mexico -- New Mexican discount airlines are using rock-bottom fares to cater to legal and illegal migrants heading for the USA.
The airlines -- known among fliers as Aeromigrante, or "Migrant Air" -- take passengers from central or southern Mexico to cities along the northern border such as Tijuana and Mexicali. From there, customers make their way across the U.S. border.
The flights are part of a booming services industry for the estimated 13 million Mexican and Central American migrants who reside in the USA. Passengers who used to make bus trips of several days can arrive at the border well-rested for the often dangerous crossing.
Return flights south are often nearly empty of passengers, and some routes offer only one-way service. One of the airlines, Tijuana-based Avolar, estimates that 70 percent of its customers have the USA as their final destination.
"The most productive routes we have are cities where you have those passengers who are traveling with the idea of the American dream," said Luis Ceceña, a company spokesman.
Other budget carriers such as Volaris, Interjet and Click have started operations in the past two years and make air travel affordable to poorer Mexicans. One-way flights to Tijuana from central Mexico cost about $150, half what they did a few years ago.
"It's much more comfortable than the bus, and about the same price," said Leopoldo Torres, 37, of Mexico City, as he stretched his legs aboard a Volaris flight to Mexicali. He and a traveling companion, Julio Menéndez, planned to cross into the USA illegally through the California desert.
Migrants said another factor driving them to fly is the difficulty of crossing the border as the United States builds fences and adds Border Patrol agents. Smugglers who aid their journey have doubled their fees to $2,000 or more, making an airline ticket seem less expensive, said Guillermo Hernández of Guerrero.
Some airlines try to get even more migrant business. Avolar offers Greyhound bus connections from Tijuana to Fresno, where many migrants work on farms. Aero California takes payments through Western Union, used by many migrants to send money home.
Ceceña said the airlines should not be responsible for policing their passengers. "We have a saying in Mexico: 'Let the other hens cackle; you take care of your own eggs,' " he said. "It's a good business for us, and we're going to keep taking care of those customers."