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Copa flight from Tampa to Panama makes inaugural trip

Vamos A Panamá!

Or, as Janet Lopano, wife of Tampa International Airport Chief Executive Officer Joe Lopano said Tuesday morning, “It’s Copa Day.”

The Lopanos joined 152 other passengers on Copa Airlines’ sold-out inaugural flight from Tampa to Panama City, Panama, launching a connection that business and leisure travelers and local economic development and airport officials have sought for years.

That’s largely because Copa serves more than 50 destinations from its Tocumen International Airport hub in Panama City, creating promise that trade and travel connections could become a game-changing catalyst for the Tampa Bay region’s economy.

“This opens up all of Central and South America to us,” said Joe Lopano, whose eagerness to board Tuesday’s flight began with rising at 4:15 a.m. and taking the tram to the departure airside terminal at 5:40 a.m., ahead of the Copa flight crew.

“It’s been a long wait, but this is just the beginning,” he said about the Copa flights that took more than two years to recruit. They are Lopano’s signature achievement since coming to Tampa International from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in January 2011.

Copa Flight 229 lifted off from Tampa International’s runway 1L at 7:41 a.m., 39 minutes behind the scheduled gate departure, soaring over heavy morning traffic on Hillsborough Avenue before turning south. It was due to arrive in Panama at 10:12 a.m.

The first inbound flight that arrived at Tampa International Monday night also was sold out, marking a good start for the four-day-a-week schedules.

Copa assigned a larger model Boeing 737 aircraft than its 124-seat Boeing 737s for the inaugural flight and several other round-trips in the coming weeks to meet demand.

Flights leave Tampa on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and leave Panama on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

“We think there is sufficient demand for our 124-seat Boeing 737s, but we have the capability of assigning larger aircraft when there is a need,” said Fernando Fondevila Leyton , Copa’s Regional Manager North America Commercial who is based in Miami.

Among the passengers was Tampa resident Paola Ramirez and her three sleepy children, who were on their way to Panama to visit family.

“This is better than driving to Orlando for a flight,” said Ramirez, characterizing travelers Tampa airport officials want to attract in lieu of them traveling to Orlando or Miami, whose international flight schedules dwarf Tampa’s.

Other passengers planned to connect in Panama City for Copa flights to Peru, Ecuador and Brazil. Monday’s inbound flight brought passengers from Brazil, Argentina and other counties in addition to Panama.

The inaugural departure also included at least two dozen officials from Tampa International Airport, the Tampa Port Authority and local business and economic development agencies. Most, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, planned to attend news conferences and meetings in Panama Tuesday and Wednesday before returning on the Wednesday evening flight to Tampa.

“This is a job well done,” said Buckhorn. “It’s all about jobs, trade and tourism.

“Obviously we are excited,” said Santiago Corrada, who heads Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County’s visitors bureau. “It’s got us clipping along at 6 in the morning,” while D.T. Minich, executive director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, said the flights will “really change things.”

Rick Homans, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., said his agency’s job was to get business people flying and filling Copa seats.

Previous Tampa International administrations had pursued carriers to serve Central and Latin America, including Copa, which is renowned in the aviation industry for its financial and service performance.

Lopano’s success in announcing the flights in July will help back the promise of $4.2 billion in airport and maintenance projects in a master plan update he orchestrated this spring, but he has said the big job will be to keep the planes full.

Lopano’s tenure began at Tampa International nearly three years ago with a new aviation authority board outlook that chose to pursue a strategy of spending money in hopes of making money.

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board in 2011 authorized an airline incentive program to entice start-up flights. It raised money from local business and tourism industry sources to augment aviation authority funding — creating a $1.2 million, one-year, multi-partner financial package supporting Copa’s four weekly round-trips.

The airport and its regional business partners also spent $750,000 for an incentive to recruit Edelweiss Air flights between Tampa and Zurich, which have operated once or twice a week depending on seasonal demand since May 2012.

Edelweiss will increase the frequency of Tampa flights on March 4 to two a week, Edelweiss Business Development Manager Michael Trestl said.

“The airline’s newly created routes between Zurich and Las Vegas and Havana, Cuba, do not have an impact on our plans in Tampa.” Trestl said in an email.

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