It was nonstop good news about nonstop flights overseas from Tampa International Airport last week.
First, Tampa International CEO Joe Lopano, Vice President of Marketing Chris Minner and other local government and tourism officials donned Panama hats as they announced Wednesday that Copa Airlines would be flying nonstop four times a week from Tampa to Panama City, beginning Dec. 17. Two days later, Edelweiss Air announced it would be expanding its nonstop flights to Zurich next year, flying twice a week from March until October.
“This is not the end, this is just the beginning,” Lopano said at the Copa announcement, where he was joined by Copa Senior Vice President Joe Mohan, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, HCAA Board Chair Robert Watkins, Visit Tampa Bay chief Santiago Corrada, Visit St. Pete Clearwater Chief D.T. Minich and others who helped lead the charge in bringing the first-ever nonstop Latin American route to the Tampa Bay area.
“This is the culmination of a lot of work by a lot of people,” said Buckhorn, who was part of the delegation that met with Copa over the two-and-a-half-year period. “This great staff at Tampa International Airport, led by Joe Lopano, pursued this aggressively.”
“The faith Copa has in us sends a message of confidence to the rest of the world," he added. “Our time has come. We are going to be the gateway to the Americas."
Mohan and Lopano unveiled the Copa branding effort with the sounds of Van Halen’s “Panama” blasting through speakers in the main terminal between the A and C shuttle entrances. A crowd of about 150 cheered. Tropical fruit smoothies were served. Over a dozen media outlets attended to cover the big announcement, and many hailed the development as one of the biggest wins for the airport and the Tampa Bay economy in decades.
Corrada pointed out that developing business connections and easy access with Latin America is a “hot issue” and one that has been challenging for the Tampa Bay area to crack.
“That situation ends today,” Corrada told the crowd. “Don’t underestimate the power of this team.”
The flights are big news for those with family ties to Latin America, but more importantly, they are expected to have a significant impact on local tourism and create a major inroad for the region's growing economic development interests in South and Central America.
Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater’s Minich, who spoke at the news conference and was also part of the delegation that helped coax Copa, called the new nonstop route a “game changer.” He pledged to open a new Latin American business office at his organization to help meet expected demands.
“We haven’t added a department in 20 years,” Minich noted.
Connecting Tampa with Panama City was no small feat. Lopano, Minner and the council of delegates first approached Copa Airlines in May 2011. The Panamanian carrier’s executives said they weren’t interested in adding any more Florida routes.
Two and a half years later – after a dozen more visits between Tampa International Airport and the airline executives – hard work and persistence paid off, thanks to a strong team of believers who refused to take the first no – and several more no’s -- for an answer. Backed by local tourism and commerce leaders and a talented airport marking staff, Lopano and Minner were able to provide numerous compelling studies and surveys to prove the airport’s worth to Copa.
“This was the most professional team we’ve ever worked with,” Mohan said.
Copa was finally convinced, and now believes the Tampa routes will be successful. The airline signed a one-year contract with TPA. It has never left a market.
The Copa Airlines flights will significantly grow international passenger traffic, which has been one of Lopano’s top priorities since he became CEO two and a half years ago. The airport has already seen success. In the last two years at TPA, international passenger traffic has increased by 28 percent, compared to a growth rate of 4.4 percent in the previous two years.
That growth was driven in part by the popularity of the Edelweiss flights, which were launched in May 2012.
"We have come to the conclusion that the Tampa Bay area is actually an underserved route and it has a lot of potential to grow," said Michael Trestl, Edelweiss's director of strategy, who noted that getting through U.S. Customs at TPA is especially impressive.
It’s only going to get bigger and better, Lopano said.
“When we first started on this journey, we were like the no-we-can't city," Lopano said. “Now we're not only the yes-we-can city. We're the watch-this city. We're on a roll and we ain't stopping."