TAMPA — Getting Copa Airlines to add a route connecting Tampa International Airport to Panama in 2013 was a big deal for bay area economic development. The Panama City route became the Tampa Bay area's first direct connection to a major Latin American hub.
That economic victory would be meaningless, however, unless the airline decided to keep serving the bay area after its incentive-laden one-year deal expires at the end of 2014.
Now it looks like Copa will be doing just that.
"We are here to stay," Fernando Fondevila Leyton, a top North American executive for the airline, said Wednesday.
Copa's happiness with how the route is going so far is a better sign than the airline signing another contract, said Chris Minner, TIA's vice president of marketing. That's because airline contracts are made to be broken. Airlines come and go as the market dictates. What's important is that the market is strong and the airline is committed.
"That speaks volumes," Minner said. "That's exactly what we want to hear."
Copa and TIA officials said that so far the route has been a big success for both. Nearly 15,000 passengers have used Copa to travel between Tampa and Panama City, according to airport data from the route's Dec. 17 start date to the most recent month on record, April.
Copa wouldn't comment on what percentage of seats are being sold. But using TIA's data, the fact that Copa uses Boeing 737-700s that seat about 124 and some rough calculations, it appears the airline is selling an average of 97 seats per plane. That's about a 78 percent load factor.
Copa flies four days a week out of TIA: Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Round-trip tickets for the three-hour flight this weekend ranged from $550 to $630, according to www.copaair.com.
Leyton was at TIA on Wednesday to represent Copa Airlines CEO Pedro Heilbron, who was named Wednesday as this year's winner of the annual Tony Jannus Award.
The Tony Jannus Award is named after the pioneering pilot who gave birth to the commercial aviation industry in the bay area when he flew an airboat and passenger from St. Petersburg to Tampa on Jan. 1, 1914.
When Heilbron visited the Tampa Bay area in September, he emphasized that Copa has never abandoned a market in the nearly seven-decade history of the airline.
TIA spent 2½ years chasing Copa, the most significant international route it has acquired in years. According to TIA, every new route to a Latin American city would have an annual economic impact of $67 million and help create 600 jobs.
Local tourism officials are working with Copa to create a market for bay area tourism in Latin America. But airline officials said that business travel has also been a big driver for TIA bookings.
Business travelers are also being lured to TIA by Copa's connections from Panama.
Tocumen International Airport is a major Copa hub to Central and South America. That puts Tampa fliers within one connecting flight of Latin America — and they don't have to go through customs again when they land at Tocumen.
"There's a lot of headquarters in the Tampa Bay area doing business in Panama," Leyton said. "This is the business we're facilitating with this route. But in addition to that, you see other opportunities for businesses going beyond Panama, that go to Peru, Chile, Ecuador, Argentina and Brazil. Now they have that connection."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow him on Twitter @jthalji.