The first Copa Airlines flight from Panama to Tampa is expected to arrive tonight, and it appears the new nonstop flights are poised to deliver on the promises made by local officials.
To meet demand, the airline is assigning an aircraft larger than the one originally considered for the inaugural flight between Panama City and Tampa International Airport. As the Tribune’s Ted Jackovics reported, the first flights are exceeding the expectations of airport officials.
The airline announced in July that it would offer four nonstop flights a week into and out of Tampa, dealing a major boost to TIA’s push for international flights. Panama City’s Tocumen International Airport is a gateway to Central and South America, connecting passengers to such cities as Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Lima. The flights will elevate the Tampa Bay area’s profile in those markets, with tourism and commerce. Until today, Latin American passengers wanting to visit the Tampa area flew into Orlando or Miami, forcing them to make the long drive. Tampa companies traveling to Latin America had to make that drive to Orlando or Miami to catch a flight.
That changes tonight, thanks in large part to TIA CEO Joe Lopano’s focus on building international travel, and to a collaboration that crossed Tampa Bay, a water body far more vast than its physical dimensions. The airport, the visitor bureaus in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, chambers of commerce and economic development agencies provided cash and in-kind marketing to Copa totaling about $1.2 million. That gives the airline a head start on building a steady passenger base. Tampa has lost international flights to Germany, Costa Rico and Mexico.
Also deserving credit for the airport’s growing international profile are the late TIA Board Member Steve Burton and other local critics who pressed a skeptical former TIA Executive Director Lou Miller to recruit foreign flights. Miller was a superb administrator and we trusted his judgment, but when he resigned and Lopano came aboard it became clear the critics were correct that TIA, with work, could win more international business.
And the stars now seem aligned. Under Lopano’s leadership, the airport has added flights to Switzerland and Cuba that appear to be succeeding. And Copa has never pulled out of a market it entered. Next month, the number of weekly international flights departing Tampa will reach 58, compared to 39 two years ago.
Those ingredients give rise to optimism. Lopano says a major daily international flight generates more than 1,200 jobs and has a $150 million economic impact. The flight touching down tonight is part of a journey that benefits the entire region.