TAMPA — The first direct overseas flight to Tampa from Panama City touched down at Tampa International Airport Monday night, the opening act in what local government and business leaders hope will be a profitable corridor for travel and trade.
Just after 10 p.m., passengers on Copa Airlines Flight 228 stepped into a brightly lit Tampa airport terminal and a schmaltzy welcoming party, with phony pirates in beads greeting them to a backdrop of beach music. (The pirates were actors hired by airport officials.)
It was undoubtedly a different scene from what the travelers left behind at Tocumen International Airport, but they didn't seem fazed.
Nayrobi Valencia, a tourist from Panama City, was the first passenger from the flight to clear customs and enter the terminal.
She'll be vacationing for 20 days in St. Petersburg, having been to the Tampa Bay area before and particularly enjoying Clearwater Beach.
"I love that place," she said. "That's why I'm here again."
The incoming flight of about 150 passengers was a prelude to a more heavily publicized departure this morning.
Airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps said the outbound flight will take place on the relatively roomy Boeing 737-800, with 160 seats, because of high ticket demand. That flight is scheduled to depart for Panama at 7:02 a.m.
Luring Copa was a feat for airport officials, who have struggled for years to attract the interest of international airlines, lagging behind Miami and Orlando. The Panama route joins flights to Cuba and Switzerland the airport has also secured.
Economic development officials hope the Panama flight will strengthen business ties with Latin America and draw tourists.