TAMPA — Pedro Heilbron’s trip from Panama to Tampa began Wednesday with a 6:30 p.m. departure on Copa Airlines to Orlando, followed by an hour’s drive to reach his hotel after 1 a.m Thursday.
When the chief executive officer of Copa visits Tampa after mid-December, he could leave Panama City at the same hour and reach Tampa on a new, non-stop flight before 11 p.m.
But what interests Heilbron more than getting a full night’s sleep is launching Copa’s newest U.S. destination at Tampa International Airport on Dec. 16.
The flights could create an unprecedented economic development and tourism opportunity for the Tampa Bay area, which for years has sought service to a hub airport offering flights throughout South and Central America.
Heilbron and a team of Copa officials on Thursday shared their insights on the distinctiveness of the Tampa Bay and Panama business, tourism and travel markets and how to make the flights successful, with growth expectations that are Copa’s hallmark at eight other U.S. destinations.
“It’s kind of early to assess early (ticket bookings),” Heilbron said. “But they are creeping up.
Two classes of economy fares are sold out on the inaugural Tampa departure Dec. 17, but $310 economy and $975 business class seats are available.
“In a way, Tampa was not an obvious choice at first,” Heilbron told a gathering at the airport that included Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a dozen members of the state Legislative delegation and local business and travel interests.
“What tipped the bar was support from the community,” he said, referring to the airline recruitment effort that united economic development, chambers of commerce and elected officials on both sides of Tampa Bay.
Heilbron credited Tampa International officials for putting together data that showed the demand for the Tampa-Panama flights and for creating a marketing incentive package of a little more than $1 million to which airport and local economic development interests contributed.
In addition, he praised Tampa International Airport Chief Executive Officer Joe Lopano’s doggedness in purging the flights.
“Joe was a stalker — in a good way,” Heilbron said about the chief executive and his staff’s efforts of staying in pursuit of Copa the past two years. “I’d see Tampa airport officials and tell them ‘I don’t think so,’ and think I got rid of them but they’d come back with more information, more data. They did the groundwork and put resources behind their promises.”
In addition to non-stop flights four days a week between Tampa and Panama City, the busiest airport hub in Latin America, Copa brings a reputation that’s atop the aviation industry and financial markets.
Its shares traded Thursday on the New York Stock Exchange at $135.46 compared with a 52-week low of $80.56 and a high of $148.09.
“It’s a game changer for us,” Lopano said. “This community has come together as a team. (Now) we need to get the word out on this flight.”
Panama’s Vice Minister of Tourism Ernesto Orillac said passenger traffic would originate both in Panama and Tampa.
“Panama’s economy is growing at about 10 percent annually and unemployment is less than 3.5 percent,” Orillac said. “Then you have the business development in Panama and more created by the canal expansion that will produce traffic. It’s all about connectivity.”