TAMPA — Tampa International Airport on Tuesday kicked off its nonstop service to Panama City, Panama, a move airport officials said will foster stronger ties between the region and Latin America.
Copa Airlines' inaugural Tampa flight departed at 7:40 a.m., about 40 minutes late, and touched down at Panama's Tocumen International Airport three hours later.
The flight carried 153 passengers, slightly more than the average 124-seat flight Copa Airlines will run into and out of Tampa International four times a week.
"This really is, literally and figuratively, the avenue to opening up a gateway to the Americas," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who took the flight as part of a business delegation.
About 5:30 a.m., before the flight left, travelers found a party at Gate 88 — including Panamanian dancers, a cake shaped like the country and a free buffet.
The Central American airline's flight from Tampa International came after nearly 21/2 years of courtship by the airport, officials said. The airport offers 12 other nonstop flights to spots in Europe, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean, but has long lagged behind other Florida airports in international connections.
"This is the beginning of the international phase of Tampa International Airport," said Joe Lopano, the airport's CEO.
In the past, Panama City was directly accessible in Florida only from Miami or Orlando.
Dan Ulrich and his wife spend several months vacationing in Panama each year and have jumped across the country for the past nine years to catch flights.
"In order to do this, we've driven to Orlando, we've flown through Miami, we've even flown through Newark," Ulrich, 66, said at the gate.
Though Panama offers tourists a tropical destination, it's also a Central and South American travel hub.
Copa Airlines will offer about 55 connections throughout Central and South America.
Ariel Galviz said he has considered moving to Miami to make the trip to see his family in Colombia shorter and simpler. This flight could change his mind.
"We need this," Galviz, 44, said. "We need this line from America."
Times staff writers Peter Jamison and Ken Walker contributed to this report. Claire Wiseman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804. Follow @clairelwiseman on Twitter.