Bob Buckhorn was just a couple of months into his term as mayor of Tampa when he flew to Panama to meet with the head of Copa Airlines. Buckhorn was joined by Tampa International Airport chief Joe Lopano and other local business leaders, and their mission was simple: convince the airline to bring nonstop service here.
Actually, it wasn’t so simple. It wasn’t going well at all.
“He told us to our face, ‘Thanks for coming here, but you are not on our radar,’” Buckhorn said. “It took us two years of dogged pursuit to make them change their minds.”
But they did change.
Less than three years after the initial contact, Copa’s first nonstop flight between Tampa and Panama is scheduled to depart this morning, amid much fanfare at the airport. Buckhorn and Lopano will be on that plane, along with other leaders, for the three-hour flight to Panama City.
Hopefully, it’s the start of a beautiful friendship with a vital partner in the area’s plan to expand trade and tourism into Central and South America.
It is, Buckhorn said Monday, “a game-changer.”
It’s also a blue ribbon for Lopano, who has helped put the “international” back in Tampa’s airport. I’ve criticized Lopano’s $330,000 salary, which includes more than $80,000 in raises since he became the airport’s CEO in January 2011. Even Buckhorn earlier this year, in opposing one of the raises, complained, “If I were Joe, I’d let my performance speak for itself and then bring it up when his contract is due.”
But give credit where it’s due. Lopano has been focused on raising Tampa’s international presence since taking over the airport, and landing this deal – along with service to Zurich and Havana – counts as the kind of performance the mayor was talking about.
Lopano gets an extra cookie.
He is not the only winner, though.
Copa gives business travelers and tourists leaving from Tampa a nonstop route to Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport. From there, it’s an easy hop to the major cities of South America. And if you don’t think that’s a big deal, then you haven’t had to drive to Orlando to catch a flight, or spent much time waiting for connections out of Miami.
“South and Central America are our natural trading partners,” Buckhorn said. “We are the closest port to the Panama Canal. We just had to make our case to Copa and back it up with hard data. We had to prove flights here wouldn’t negatively impact Orlando and Miami. Once we did that, it came together for us.”
That’s a key point. Tampa conceded the international game to Miami and Orlando a long time ago, but Lopano and his team at the airport are back in the fight. That’s a good thing, a very good thing, because Copa’s sparkling reputation in the industry could attract more international airlines to Tampa.
It all started because Buckhorn and Lopano wouldn’t say no, wouldn’t quit, and always believed Tampa would one day be on Copa’s radar.