TAMPA — Calvin Reed travels to Panama once a month to oversee his Tampa company's projects there. Total flight time is under three hours. But Reed wastes a day just in transit.
That's because Reed and his colleagues at Tampa Tank and Florida Structural Steel couldn't fly from Tampa International Airport straight to Panama. In Florida, the only direct flights to Central and South America go through airports in Orlando or Miami.
That ends this week. Starting Monday, Copa Airlines will fly four days a week between Panama City and Tampa.
"We cannot wait to start using it," said Reed, senior project manager and co-owner of the petroleum tank manufacturer.
Reed and business folk like him are critical to making the Copa route work in Tampa Bay.
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Tampa Bay economic development leaders spent 21/2 years trying to lure Copa, which serves all of Latin America from its Panama City hub.
The leaders think that if businessmen like Reed can get to Latin America easier, and if his clients can get here easier, then it can help his company and others do more business there — and maybe help create more jobs here.
That's the long-term goal. But right now the bay area really needs business people like Reed just to buy tickets to fill Copa's planes.
For years, TIA struggled to attract overseas flights, lagging way behind the airports in Orlando and Miami. Recently, the airport secured flights to Switzerland and Cuba, but the Copa flight is by far its biggest get in years.
Copa's contract with Tampa is for just one year. Local leaders have pledged to help Copa fill its planes to keep the airline operating at Tampa International.
If the airline leaves, so goes a chance to build economic ties with Latin America.
It's Rick Homan's job to build those ties. The chief executive officer of the Tampa Hills- borough Economic Development Corp. was on the team that helped land the Copa route.
But then trade missions are his specialty. In October he led one of the largest trade missions in bay area history to Brazil. In February, he'll lead another one to Panama. In November 2014, he'll host a trade delegation from Tampa's sister city in Brazil, Porto Alegre.
"That's how you build those relationships, going back and forth," Homans said. "It takes time. It takes money. But that's how you develop the business."
The important thing to Reed is that, starting this week, it will take much less time.
The first flight from Panama City is scheduled to arrive in Tampa at 9:53 p.m. Monday. The first Tampa flight to Panama City is set to depart the next day at 7:02 a.m.
"The way they scheduled the flights is perfect for us," Reed said. "It gets us down there in midmorning, and the flight back doesn't leave until the evening.
"Basically it will give us an extra day down on-site for all of our projects."
He's been pushing for the route for years. In 2006 he accompanied former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio on a trade mission to Panama.
His company Tampa Tank is working on a project for the Panama Canal expansion and two others for private clients there. Reed said he'll probably make two trips there in January from Tampa.
But his company also does business throughout Latin America, and the Copa route will help him get to those places faster, too. Copa has turned Tocumen International Airport into a major hub, which means that the Tampa-to-Panama City route puts the bay area within one connecting flight of Central and South America.
"They have wonderful connections to the rest of Central America,'' Reed said. "It'll just help us generate more business there."
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Business travel is one of the ways the bay area helped sell itself to Copa.
In January 2013, when the courtship was heating up, the Tampa Bay delegation produced a survey that got Copa's attention:
Of 246 Tampa Bay businesses surveyed, 61 percent said they would travel to Latin America more if there was nonstop service in Tampa. More than half said they already make the trip. That was already 4,000 trips a year. And 40 percent of those businesses said they book 20 flights or more annually.
Tampa International also held a luncheon for Copa executives where officials of local companies explained how they would use direct flights to Latin America. Officials from the Tampa Bay Rays, Tech Data and the USF Health Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation, or CAMLS, all made their case for direct travel.
"It was really, I would say, one of the keys to convincing Copa to put the flight here," Homans said.
The Copa route could also make Tampa Bay attractive to Panamanian companies looking to expand their offices to the United States and vice versa. Direct travel makes all of that possible. But the next step is to build relationships between governments, organizations and firms here and in Panama.
But building economic relationships with Panama is just the first step.
"Copa really opens up all of Latin America," Homans said. "It makes it accessible, and not only to Panama. There's Chile, Brazil, Colombia. There are all significant trading partners today that have great potential for us in the future."