TAMPA — Here's a good indicator of the strength of Tampa International Airport's Latin American travel market: Copa Airlines will fly daily over the holidays.
Copa started flying four times a week between Tampa and Panama City in December. But the airport announced Monday that the airline will increase its Tampa flights to seven times a week from Nov. 17 to Jan. 2.
When the Copa route started in December, airport CEO Joe Lopano said TIA's long-term goal was to eventually see its Latin American route go daily.
"I think it's further indication of the strength of the market," Lopano said. "It's further indication of the confidence Copa has in the market.
"We know that they're experiencing good results. Hopefully this is the beginning of going to a regular daily flight."
Airline and airport officials have labeled the route a success. Nearly 18,000 passengers have flown on TIA's Copa route from when it started Dec. 17 through May, according to airport data.
Copa's decision to expand to daily service over the holidays was justified by the early success of the route during the last holiday season, Lopano said.
"Last year they launched the market during the holidays and did extremely well," he said. "Their feeling is, let's take advantage of the peak in travel, and I think the (airline will) be very happy."
Lopano said Copa's holiday travel market is being fed by Tampa Bay residents visiting friends and relatives overseas during the holidays, and Latin Americans doing the same here. It helped that the much heralded route was the bay area's first direct flight to Latin America.
Copa connects TIA to Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. The airline has turned Tocumen into a major hub to the rest of Central and South America. That means Tampa Bay is within one connecting flight of Latin America's major cities.
"They may be going to the coast of Costa Rica," Lopano said, "or visiting friends and relatives in Chile or Brazil. There are a lot of connections taking place down in Panama."
So what will it take for Copa to bring daily flights to TIA full time?
"I think the simple answer is it takes proof of demand," Lopano said. "I think that we're showing that we're able to support four flights a week every week.
"They've obviously given us a vote of confidence. Now we have to prove that we can fill those seasonal flights. That will give them more confidence, perhaps, to add daily flights out of season."
Tickets for Copa's daily holiday flights out of TIA go on sale Saturday.
Contact Jamal Thalji at email@example.com or (813) 226-3404. Follow @jthalji.