By: Pedro Heilbron

Pedro Heilbron
Chief Executive
Copa Airlines


"In 1985, no one would have dreamed that in 2010, the place to be in aviation would be Latin America," 


Pedro Heilbron
 © Billypix

Twenty-five years ago, few would have imagined that today Latin America would be among the leading regions in the world in terms of economic growth and development. Even fewer would have dreamed of Latin America's airlines being in the top echelon of this competitive aviation industry.

In the late 1980s, when I first joined this exiting industry, and up until the mid-1990s, aviation in Latin America was synonymous with badly run airlines (many government-owned, with aging fleets), inflated payrolls and obsolete technology.

The industry was highly fragmented, with nearly 20 carriers competing internationally and none, with the probable exemption of Varig, with a meaningful international presence and the respect of its peers. But things have changed since the first copy of Airline Business was printed 25 years ago.


Today we are down to five airline groups competing for leadership in the international intra-Latin America space. Gone are Aero Peru, VIASA, Ecuatoriana, VASP, Air Panama, Dominicana, ACES, Lloyd Aereo Boliviano and AVENSA, to name a few. Even Varig is not much more than a name and Mexicana is no longer flying.

However, the few remaining airlines have consolidated and are now among the world leaders in the industry. All four publicly-traded companies - LAN, TAM, GOL and Copa Airlines - are consistently in the top 25 in terms of market capitalisation and in the top 15 in operating profit margins.

Our fleets have been renewed and today, the leading airlines in Latin America operate modern aircraft of only, on average, a little more than five years old. Service-level metrics are also at the top of our industry. On-time performance, a clear marker of an efficient and well-run airline, is in the high-80s to low-90s for most of Latin America's leading airlines.

Our airlines have also invested in modern and fuel-efficient fleets, the best available technology, which allows RNAV/RNP approaches, winglets and other advancements, and our Latin American industry has cut emissions in a considerable way to be at the forefront of meeting IATA's targets towards a future of carbon-neutral growth.

I am proud of how our industry has evolved in the past 25 years. It has, without question, contributed to the economic and social development of our continent.


Aviation today generates more than 700,000 jobs and contributes to approximately $22 billion of Latin America's GDP. The connectivity we provide brings us closer, and this has facilitated the expansion of business, the development of tourism and the promotion and strengthening of our cultural links.

I am also proud of what Copa Airlines has accomplished during this period. Before Copa had the vision of establishing an intra-Latin America hub, it was almost impossible to travel in our continent. Going from one country to the other, especially travelling between South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean, required advance and expert planning to figure out the multiple airline connections needed, given the few available flights.

Today, through the hub of the Americas in Panama and its multiple daily flights, Copa Airlines connects all of Latin America. Our modern, fuel-efficient aircraft, world-class service and financial results make us one of the world's leading airlines.

Yes, in 1985, no-one would have dreamed that in 2010, the place to be in aviation would be Latin America. So cheers to Airline Business on its 25th anniversary and cheers to Latin America's airlines. We've come a long way.


Pedro Heilbron

Heilbron has successfully grown Copa based on a strategy of Panama being the natural hub for the region. He spoke to us about the teamwork needed to make this happen.



Heilbron thinks not in terms of routes but in terms of the network.

"The question is not so much should we go to Lima or how many business people in Lima come to Panama, but where would business travellers in Lima want to go that we can and do go to?"

Source: Airline Business