TAMPA - More than $1 million in local incentives will support four Copa Airlines flights a week between Tampa International Airport and Panama for a year, beginning Dec. 17.
But a top Copa executive said Wednesday that the airline's track record indicates its Tampa presence is likely to prevail beyond short-term marketing incentives and that additional flights are envisioned.
"Tampa is our 66th destination and we have never left a city," said Joseph Mohan, the Copa senior vice president who decided with Copa Chief Executive Pedro Heilbron to launch the Tampa flights.
Mohan made his comments during the official announcement that the Tampa airport had secured the long-sought Copa service.
"This is a historic day," Tampa International Chief Executive Joe Lopano said regarding the airport's first nonstop flights to Copa's Panama City hub. Connecting Copa flights are available to Buenos Aires, Argentina; Rio De Janeiro, Brazil; Lima, Peru; Santiago, Chile; and two dozen more Central and South American destinations.
"Copa's next brand-new market is Tampa," Lopano said. "It could have been somewhere in Chile, Venezuela or Texas."
Lopano and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn in May 2011 led a small contingent of local officials who met Heilbron and Mohan in Panama to pitch Tampa International. They received a courteous message from the airline that was successfully serving Miami and Orlando: Copa is not looking at Tampa.
Two years and a dozen meetings later, Copa became a convert, based both on details of the potential family, tourist and business travel available to and from Tampa and the partnership between the airport and local business groups, Mohan said.
"The strong local support makes this a unique destination," said Mohan, who lived in Miami before graduating from St. Petersburg Catholic High School and the University of Florida in 1991 with an economics degree.
Mohan pointed to the similarities between the potential in Tampa and Copa's announcement in January 2012 to launch service in Las Vegas six months later.
"Our plan was to begin with four flights a week, just like Tampa," Mohan said. "But even before we started service we had enough ticket sales to add a fifth flight between Las Vegas and Panama City. Now we are flying that route daily."
Although the Tampa area's demographics are markedly different from Las Vegas, detailed market research indicates Tampa's potential for demand, Mohan said.
That includes trips by personnel involved with the University of South Florida's Center For Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, which will establish a similar facility in Panama and is studying future CAMLS sites in Colombia and Brazil, said Paul Ayres, the project's director of marketing and business development.
Tampa International's success in attracting Copa will not change its strategy to recruit airlines including TAM for flights to Brazil, Avianca for Colombia, Aeromexico for Mexico City, and Condor and Lufthansa for Germany, airport vice president of marketing Chris Minner said.
Top domestic priorities are nonstop flights serving San Francisco with United and Virgin America and Seattle with Alaska Airlines, he said.
"The faith Copa has in us sends a message of confidence to the rest of the world," Mayor Buckhorn said. "Our time has come. We are going to be the gateway to the Americas."