Panama flights should boost economy
Landing flights to Panama City adds momentum to Tampa International Airport's growing reputation for foreign travel and should give a jet-powered boost to the local economy. Copa Airlines announced Wednesday it would begin holding four flights a week from TIA to Panama City beginning in December. Panama City's Tocumen International airport is considered the gateway to Latin America. The Copa flights will link the Tampa market to such destinations as Bogota, Colombia; Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Lima, Peru. This is will aid both commerce and tourism.The airport studies found more than 120,000 residents in our region with ties to Latin America. Many fly out of Orlando or Miami to visit relatives. A TIA survey of local businesses also found that most companies that travel to Latin America must use Orlando or Miami, though they would prefer Tampa. Now they will have that option. The Latin American connection will add to Tampa's business appeal. Attracting the Copa Airlines business is a major accomplishment for TIA CEO Joe Lopano, his team and the local tourism and business groups that participated in the effort. As is customary in such deals, financial incentives were used. The airport will provide about $486,000 in fee waivers and marketing support over the next year. Visit St. Pete/Clearwater will give $200,000 in marketing support over the next two years. Visit Tampa Bay will provide $50,000. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce are each providing $200,000 in support. The Tampa-Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. will coordinate trade and business missions to Latin America. Obviously, it is critical that the flights succeed, but airport officials and local leaders did their due diligence. The studies show a large untapped local market for Latin American travel. And Copa has a solid reputation. The likelihood of success is high, and the payoff should be big. As Lopano likes to point out, studies show a daily major international flight generates 1,286 jobs and has an annual economic impact of $150 million. Attracting more international flights became a priority when Lopano was hired by TIA in January 2011. The Aviation Authority, and the community, should be pleased with the progress. The airport added flights to Switzerland and Cuba. International passengers are up 28 percent. Weekly foreign flights, which vary seasonally, have gone from around 20 to 28, and the Copa flights will soon make that 32. Lopano once told us that cities connected to the "international grid" are the ones that enjoy the most business growth and that "we are not yet connected to the international grid." That looks to be changing - in a hurry.