Tampa Bay business executives and Mayor Bob Buckhorn will hit the road to Panama next week and ask the nation's flagship carrier to fly nonstop to Tampa International Airport.
Airport officials have targeted Copa Airlines, which is expanding flights from its hub in Panama City. Copa says it flies to more international destinations than any other airline from any other hub in Latin America. Thanks to a local connection, Tampa officials will make their case to the airline's top brass.
Airport officials would love to add Panama City to a thin schedule of nonstop international destinations: London, a handful of Canadian cities and Grand Cayman Island. Other than off-and-on service to Cancun, the last Latin American flights ended when German carrier Condor left in 2003.
The pitch to Copa is part of four-day trip arranged by the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. and Tampa Port Authority. Fifteen executives will get business briefings from Panamanian officials, tour the Panama Canal and attend a business networking reception.
It got started when SunTrust's Dan Mahurin asked Tampa port director Richard Wainio for help setting up a visit for local businesses to make connections in Panama. Wainio grew up in the Panama Canal Zone and held a top job with the canal commission earlier in his career.
"These are senior-level people — top people in their organizations — that have an interest in going down to Panama and getting a high-level overview of business activities in Panama," Wainio said.
Tampa International chief executive Joe Lopano called several weeks ago, saying he was trying to set up a meeting with Copa executives about a nonstop flight to Tampa.
It turns out, Wainio has a few Copa connections.
"I grew up with the chairman of the board," he said. "I know the president."
During a trip to Panama last month with Gov. Rick Scott and other Florida port directors, he attended a private party along with the Copa CEO Pedro Heilbron and chairman Stanley Motta.
"I said, 'By the way, our new airport director wants to meet with you,' " Wainio said. " 'Could we do something the first week of May?' "
The meeting is on for Thursday afternoon.
Buckhorn is scheduled to arrive late Wednesday. He'll sit in on the presentation to Copa, catch a red-eye flight and connect to a flight that arrives in Tampa after midnight.
Tampa might not be an easy sell. Copa flies twice daily between Panama City and Orlando. Those flights attract some Tampa Bay travelers who don't want to wait for connections in big hubs, said Christopher Minner, TIA's vice president of marketing.
A nonstop from Tampa to Panama City would take three hours and 15 minutes. A flight with a connection through Miami now takes 51/2 hours.
Aviation consultant Stuart Klaskin said Copa might try out a new Tampa route with its small, 100-seat jets. They also can count on Tampa Bay travelers flying to Panama City and continuing to nearby Latin American destinations like Costa Rica.
"It makes a lot of sense," Klaskin said.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.