Persistence pays off: How RDU airport wooed Panama’s Copa Airlines to the Triangle

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Long before Copa Airlines chose to begin nonstop flights from Raleigh-Durham International Airport to Panama City this summer, the airport chose Copa Airlines.

RDU officials saw that 275 people a day were flying between the airport and Central and South America, making connections through other airports. They began looking for a carrier that could serve those customers with nonstop flights to the region and settled on Copa, which has a good reputation and the largest airline hub in the hemisphere south of the United States.

So well before the COVID-19 pandemic, RDU officials began wooing Copa in what the airline’s CEO Pedro Heilbron describes as a “dance” that went on for years.

“To be very honest, we did not have Raleigh-Durham on our map until the RDU people started talking to us and selling the region to us,” Heilbron said in an interview Friday. “And then we looked at the data.”

Copa saw the region’s strong business community as well as the state’s growing number of Hispanic residents who were flying to places the airline serves in Central and South America. It saw tourists going to Panama, but also the potential for tourists from Latin America to explore a new U.S. destination. And it saw a significant number of Latin American students who attend Triangle universities.

Copa flies to 15 other U.S. cities, mostly “the logical places,” Heilbron said, such as New York, Los Angeles and Washington. The more RDU kept pitching North Carolina and the closer the airline looked at the numbers, the Triangle began to make sense.

“We try to make winning bets, so we’re very careful,” he said.

Heilbron spoke Friday at a forum in Cary put on by RDU and the Regional Transportation Alliance, an arm of the Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce. It was a chance to help introduce an airline that few people in the Triangle had ever heard of a few months ago, said Michael Landguth, RDU’s president and CEO.

“As we started to socialize this in our community, what I started to recognize is that if you were from Central America or South America or have flown through those areas, the Copa brand was well known,” Landguth said. “But if you’re from North Carolina or the eastern United States, maybe not as much.”

Copa stood out to RDU in part because of its large and strategically located hub at Tocumen International Airport, from which the airline serves 85 cities throughout the Americas. Another was the airline’s attention to detail, particularly its on-time performance, Landguth said.

“Hands down, the airline that stands out if you’re going to Central America and South America, it is Copa Airlines,” he said. “They have won award after award after award for being on time.”

Copa initially plans to fly between RDU and Panama City four days a week — Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday — starting June 21. The airline typically begins with less-than-daily service in new markets but hopes to expand as demand grows, Heilbron said.

The flights take a little over four hours on a Boeing 737-800 with 160 seats. The flight from Panama will arrive about 2:30 p.m., with the return flight scheduled to leave RDU at 4:20 p.m.

Heilbron said he expects that RDU will eventually get nonstop flights to other large cities in Central and South America in part based on Copa’s experience.

“There will be cities that see that Copa’s doing so well,” he said. “Maybe the RDU team won’t have to fight so hard to convince them, because Copa’s having success.”