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Copa Airlines to start Tampa-Panama service in December

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Published:   |   Updated: July 17, 2013 at 06:16 AM

TAMPA - Copa Airlines will start flights between Tampa International Airport and Panama in December, giving customers a direct link to Central and South America.

The new route with one of the world's leading airlines would fulfill Tampa International's long-standing goal to serve Copa's hub in Panama City for flights throughout Central and South America.

It is expected to provide a boon for families with ties in Tampa and Latin America, enhance local tourism, and create a major inroad for the region's economic development interests with the Southern Hemisphere.

Tampa airport officials and Copa executives at their Panama City headquarters have remained mum on what could be the biggest development in recent years for local air service, but aviation and tourism sources with knowledge about the deal have confirmed Copa's plans.

A news conference focusing on international flights is scheduled for 11 a.m. today at the airport.

Aviation interests familiar with Copa operations told the Tribune the airline would put tickets on sale the same day of the announcement. The frequency of the service has not been revealed.

The flights are likely to use Boeing 737 aircraft that would land in Tampa late in the evening from Panama City on flights of about two and a half hours and return with an early morning flight, possibly capitalizing on an aircraft that otherwise might sit idle in the Panama City hub.

Copa's fleet in 2013 will number 46 Boeing 737-800s with a capacity of 160 passengers each; 18 Boeing 737-700s carrying 124 passengers; and 26 Embraer-190s, carrying 94 passengers.

Copa is one of the world's most highly regarded carriers from service, airline industry and investor standpoints.

Its hub at Tocumen International Airport in Panama City is known for ease of transfers and customs processing, which Tampa passengers who struggle with changing planes for international flights in Miami or driving to Orlando to catch a flight are expected to welcome.

The airline was created in 1947 by Panamanian investors and Pan American World Airways, which provided technical and economic assistance and capital.

Since 1998 Copa has expanded its fleet from 13 to about 90 aircraft. It offers 280 scheduled flights among 65 destinations in 29 countries in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean from its Panama City hub.

Copa last year transported 10.1 million passengers with a 24 percent growth in seat capacity compared with 2011. The airline won Airline Business magazine's "Regional Leadership" award in 2012.

Shares sold on the New York Stock Exchange have shown a generally steady rise from about the $80 level in September to close at $137.90 on Tuesday.

Copa has long been a target of Tampa International officials, but has favored Orlando International Airport and its tourism and strong business base.

To bolster Tampa's prospects for new international and long-range domestic flights, Joe Lopano, who became Tampa International's chief executive officer in January 2011, inaugurated an incentive program in June 2011.

Incentives that the airport and Pinellas and Hillsborough visitors bureaus will provide helped persuade Copa to begin flying from Tampa, even though Copa has three daily and one four-day a week nonstop flights between nearby Orlando International and Panama.

The most recent attempt to attract Copa to Tampa began with a trade mission to Panama City in May 2011 that included Lopano, Tampa International vice president of marketing Chris Minner, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and then-Tampa port director Richard Wainio, who has close ties with Copa officials from his two dozen years working with the Panama Canal.

Another formal meeting between Copa and Tampa officials took place in March 2012 when airport officials met with a Copa network planning manager attending a three-day airline industry conference in Tampa.

Tampa International officials targeted Copa at a lavish evening social session at the University of South Florida's Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, where local officials emphasized the potential role of USF's Health International Foundation, which has a campus in Panama City, in creating business travel between Tampa and Panama City.

Boston beat out Tampa for a Copa flight serving Panama that began in July. But Lopano noted recently that Copa has been adding a new aircraft nearly every month, and with a strong proposal, Tampa would soon have its day.

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7817

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