ALTA 2010: Copa seeks to persuade Star carriers to launch Panama services

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Copa plans to work with members of the Star Alliance, which the Panamanian carrier announced last week it will be joining, to open new long-haul connections at its Panama City hub.

Copa chief Pedro Heilbron says the carrier, which currently only operates Boeing 737NG and Embraer E-190 aircraft, has no plans to add widebody aircraft and launch its own flights across the Atlantic or Pacific. But he says he hopes to "encourage" Asian and European members of the Star Alliance to serve Panama City's Tocumen International Airport.

Currently Tocumen is only served by one Star carrier, United Airlines.

"As we grow and as Panama as a destination grows there is room for more airlines. There are airlines that want to tap into our network and now hopefully with Star Alliance we will hopefully be able to attract some Star carriers that see the advantage of one connecting point to all of Latin America and that Panama is the best connecting point," Heilbron told ATI and Flightglobal sister publication Airline Business in an interview last week.

While Star currently has no long-haul flights out of Panama, Tocumen is served by Oneworld's Iberia and SkyTeam's KLM. Heilbron says Copa will continue its codeshare with KLM but he is hopeful Star founding member Lufthansa, which launched service to Bogota at the end of last month and is keen to expand its footprint in the region, will at some point consider Panama City.

"I think they [Lufthansa] can do both. If Bogota is successful for them Panama should be even more successful," Heilbron says.

Heilbron also hopes an Asian member of Star will launch services to Panama in the medium to long-term, potentially Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA) using its new fleet of Boeing 787s. "ANA will be the logical carrier and I think it will be a very successful flight," he says.

ANA currently does not serve any Latin American destination, which according to Heilbron could make Panama and a tie-up with Copa even more attractive as "Panama opens up all of Latin America and the Caribbean".

While Copa will not complete the process of joining Star for another 18 months, Heilbron says in the interim Copa plans to begin codesharing with Star members. Late last week he told analysts that "we will be turning on some frequent flier and codeshare relationships that are most interesting to us, starting in the first quarter 2011". But he did not elaborate which Star members Copa would work with initially.

While Copa is not yet in Star Heilbron points out it indirectly already is in the alliance because Copa uses Continental's OnePass frequent flier programme as its own. The fact it uses OnePass and already has the same IT systems as Continental is expected to make the process of formally joining Star relatively smooth.

Copa has a long-standing partnership with Continental Airlines, which joined Star late last year and earlier this year merged with United. Currently United serves Panama City from the legacy Continental hubs of Houston and Newark, with both routes carrying the Copa code.

Heilbron is looking forward to expanding this partnership now that United and Continental have completed their merger. Copa already serves two United hubs, Washington Dulles and Los Angeles, as well as Miami, New York JFK and Orlando. Heilbron says a new service to Chicago O'Hare, another United hub, would also make sense.

"I'm sure that are now we are in Star we will both consider Chicago. I'm sure United will consider Chicago-Panama, and so should we, but it's not in our plans now," Heilbron told Airline Business.