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Mexican airlines look at Ark.

Mexican airlines look at Ark.

LITTLE ROCK (AP) – Two Mexican airlines wanting to reach a growing immigrant population in Arkansas and neighboring states may soon add direct flights to Little Rock.

Aeromexico and Mexicana, two of Mexico’s largest airlines, are in discussions to fly in and out of Little Rock National Airport, said airport spokesman Philip Launius. The hope, Launius said, is that the airport would be the central hub for travel to Mexico from Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Tennessee.

‘One of the Japanese steel company executives described Arkansas as being the navel of NAFTA,’ Launius said, referring to the North American Free Trade Agreement. ‘It’s about equidistant between the industrial part of eastern Canada and Mexico.’

Discussions between the airport and two airlines have been ongoing for about a year, Launius said, as officials offer the airlines statistics on the state’s Hispanic immigrant population, one of the fastest growing in the nation. U.S. Census Bureau statistics show that at least 130,000 Hispanics live in Arkansas, the majority of those from Mexico. But demographers and state officials believe that number may be much higher because illegal immigrants typically shy away from census counters.

But immigrant travelers and visiting family members wouldn’t be the only ones traveling between Arkansas and Mexico. State statistics show Mexico was Arkansas’ second-largest export destination, with $415 million worth of goods heading there in 2005. Canada was No. 1 with more than $1 billion.

‘It’s got both a corporate and a leisure component,’ Launius said. ‘We are really excited. Of course, that gives you international status in terms of an airport. It’s stepping up to a higher plane.’

Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, more than 300 miles away from Little Rock, is now the closest hub for direct flights from Mexico for Mexicana. The airport once had direct flights from Aeromexico as well, but the airline left, an airport official said.

Memphis International Airport in Tennessee, about 150 miles away from Little Rock, has one direct flight to Cancun on Northwest Airlines.

Bruce Hicks, a U.S.-based spokesman for Aeromexico, said he had heard nothing about the negotiations. Officials with Mexicana could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

Launius said Little Rock’s new Mexican consulate, which opened last month, has been providing extra leverage in the negotiations.

The Little Rock airport sees about 2.5 million passengers a year. If the airlines agree to fly to Little Rock, Launius said the airport would need to build a facility for U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to do inspections of incoming passengers.

While the airport has only a single concourse, Launius said the airport could use a ‘swing gate’ to move international passengers through inspections. Customs agents now have a small outpost at the airport to inspect cargo and private aircraft that land at the airfield, he said.

But even if Aeromexico and Mexicana back out of talks, Launius said that might be enough for roughly 10 new discount carriers in the country to take a look at Little Rock.

‘It’s not on the cusp of occurring, but the discussions have all been very positive. It is something that is continuing,’ he said. ‘We are judging by the questions they are asking that there is real interest.’

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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