Copa Airlines is starting the year by expanding its seating capacity on its two daily flights between San Juan and its hub in Panama , from where it offers dozens of connections to Central and Latin America, Héctor Busquets, general manager for the local operation, said Thursday.
The capacity increase responds to the addition of larger aircraft to its systemwide fleet this year that, if filled, could potentially represent 44,000 new passengers moving through the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Carolina.
“In 2010 we transported some 90,000 passengers out and into San Juan and we hope this year remains like that, or higher, considering the addition of the larger Boeing 737-700’s that represent 30 more seats per flight,” said Busquets, noting Copa paid $2.6 billion for 42 new planes, including 10 Boeings, that will debut this year across its network.
Despite the economic downturn, Copa managed a 10 percent growth in 2010, including its Puerto Rico operation where it has been doing business for 25 years, he noted. All flights originating in San Juan make the connection in Panama.
PPP for LMM welcome
During his meeting with members of the local media, Busquets said the government’s plan to turn over the management of the LMM airport through a Public-Private Partnership is a welcome move, as “private companies usually manage facilities better.”
“Ultimately, a PPP at the airport will benefit us because fees will likely be more competitive,” said Busquets. “Private operators are more concerned about managing their structures and are more aware of providing good service.”
Last year, the Fortuño Administration announced plans to turn over the management — not the ownership — of the island’s main airport facility to a private operator. The Federal Aviation Administration has already given its approval to the government’s plan, which must now receive the go-ahead from at least 65 percent of the airlines operating out of LMM.
New routes out of Panama
While San Juan will see no new flights added this year, Copa’s plans call for starting new routes to Toronto, Canada; Porto Alegre, Brazil; and Nassau, Bahamas out of the Tocumen Airport in Panama City starting June 15. In addition to the four-times-a-week flights, Copa will also increase the frequency of its flights to Lima, Peru, Orlando and Miami, Fla., Bogota, Colombia and Santiago, Chile.
These operational changes also translate to significant improvements in Copa’s flight schedules to major destinations on the U.S. mainland, such as New York’s JFK Airport and Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., as well as to South America’s principal cities, company officials said.
In Puerto Rico, Copa mainly caters to the tourist traveler, which Busquets said accounts for 70 percent of its business out of San Juan. The most popular routes out of the island are: Panama; San José Costa Rica; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Peru; Guatemala and Havana, Cuba.
Expanding to Cuba
“We have five daily flights from Panama to Cuba, but when it comes to flights from San Juan, they must be arranged through the three certified travel agencies we work with in Puerto Rico,” he said, referring to Viajes Careli, Valisan Travel and Viajes Varadero.
In 2010, some 4,200 people traveled from Puerto Rico to Cuba through the travel agencies, and Copa is expecting demand to increase this year in response to the Obama administration’s decision to ease up travel restrictions between the U.S. mainland and its jurisdictions to the communist Caribbean nation.
“We’re already analyzing the opportunities that may come up in the market, particularly in charters,” Busquets said. “We’re already in talks with U.S. Customs and Immigration because if we were able to offer charter flights, they would have to be out of San Juan after midnight, but since the agencies close at LMM at midnight, we would need to see if they would be willing to expand their operating hours.”
A decision by the federal agencies to offer a round-the-clock schedule at the Carolina airport would allow the creation of new routes, “something that is viable and that I imagine other airlines would do as well,” Busquets said.
In 2010, Copa Airlines transported more than 5.2 million passengers worldwide.