TAMPA — Copa Airlines is just days away from launching the most important international route in years at Tampa International Airport, and passenger demand is already exceeding expectations.
Next week, the Panamanian carrier will begin flying its Panama-City-to-Tampa route four times a week. Panama City is the airline's main hub, putting Tampa Bay within one connecting flight of the rest of Latin America.
While no official airline ticket numbers have been released, officials say demand appears to be strong. Copa had assigned 737-700s to Tampa, which carry about 124 passengers. But the inaugural flight arriving Monday night and departing for Panama City on Tuesday was "up-gauged" to a bigger 737-800, which seats about 160.
Two December flights and four January flights have all been assigned bigger planes.
"It's exciting that this early on, before the flights even launch, that Copa is already having to move to bigger planes to accommodate the demand," said airport spokeswoman Emily Nipps.
The first flight from Panama City is set to arrive at Tampa International at 9:53 p.m. Monday. The first departure to Panama City is scheduled for a 7:02 a.m. takeoff Tuesday. The airport is planning to celebrate with a party and news conference at 5:30 that morning.
According to Copa's website, there are still plenty of economy seats left on the inbound flight. But there are only a scattered number of seats left on the departing inaugural flight from Tampa to Panama City. The lowest round-trip fare available on the three-hour flight for January departures was $529.
Tuesday's departing flight will be filled with the local economic development leaders who helped persuade Copa to come to this market: Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Tampa International chief executive officer Joe Lopano, Visit Tampa Bay CEO Santiago Corrada, and D.T. Minich and David Downing, the No. 1 and No. 2 employees at the Pinellas tourism agency Visit St. Pete/Clearwater.
Minich said the group is taking the inaugural flight to celebrate the route's arrival — and also talk to the media and market the route in Panama City. The group will return to Tampa on Wednesday's Copa flight.
Copa has signed only a one-year contract to service Tampa, so local leaders have pledged to market the route in order to fill seats. To that end, Tampa Bay tourism officials are hoping to create a market for Tampa Bay tourism in Latin America.
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater has dedicated $400,000 in marketing dollars in the next two years. In recent months, Hillsborough and Pinellas tourism officials have also been hosting tour operators and tourism officials from Latin America to educate them about the Tampa Bay market. Those operators are already very familiar with Orlando and Miami.
"It's a huge market, and there's tons of opportunities down there," Minich said. "The tour operators are really excited about having a new product to sell in the state of Florida."