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The Boston Globe

Business

On the Hot seat

Strengthening Boston-Latin America links

Pedro Heilbron, chief executive, Copa Airlines

Kayana Szymczak for the Globe

Pedro Heilbron, chief executive, Copa Airlines

Boston is currently the largest US market without nonstop air service to Latin America, but that ends Wednesday when Panama-based Copa Airlines starts daily flights between Boston and Panama City. Copa chief executive Pedro Heilbron came to Boston recently to meet Governor Deval Patrick, as well as members of the local Latin American community. Globe reporter Katie Johnston caught up with him at the State House to talk about the new route and his wager on the Holy Cross basketball team.

You have a lot of Massachusetts education connections. You went to College of the Holy Cross in Worcester. Your daughter and nephews went to prep school and college here.

My sisters started coming here in the late ’60s, to Newton Country Day School of the Sacred Heart. One went to Wellesley, the other one went to Wheaton. My brother went to Berkshire Academy, then he graduated from Emerson. Before that I went to Holy Cross. So the governor is asking me, “So are you a taxpayer?” I said “No, I should get a tax refund.”

Be honest. Did you start service to Boston to make it easier for your family to get here?

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Actually, my daughter is very upset at me. Because the three years she was at Walnut Hill [in Natick], she was begging me every year to have direct flights to Panama. And she gets everything she asks for; that’s the one thing she didn’t get.

What do you hope to achieve with the Boston-Panama route?

It’s a market that offers possibilities on both ends. There will be many people leaving Boston for business and tourist reasons going down to Latin America. There will be people coming here for education, medical, tourism, even business. So that makes it very interesting.

How are advance bookings so far?

We can compare the route to a city of similar characteristics in the US where we have already been flying for more than a year, and Boston is booking ahead of that other city.

Copa’s doing really well, outperforming many other airlines, adding 15 international destinations in 2011 and 2012. What’s your secret?

I’ll tell you something about our secret, which not everybody realizes. We’ve been at it for [a long time]. What you see today is the result of 20 years of a laser focus on what we do well, which is running an intra-Latin America hub in Panama.

Copa is also no doubt benefiting from the growth of Latin America.

Latin America is projected to be among the three fastest growing regions in the world for the next 20 years, together with the Middle East and Asia. Panama has been the fastest growing country in Latin America for the past few years, and it’s projected to be the same this year. That has a lot to do with our success.

Does Copa take any credit for that?

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Actually we do. And I’ll tell you why. Panama is not an industrial nation. We don’t really produce stuff for export. We do not depend on commodities like other countries in our region. We’re basically a service economy that bases its success on its geographic position and the connectivity that that brings to the region and the world. Tourism is growing double digits, and most tourists come via air. There are more flights and more cities served out of Panama than any other airport in Latin America.

A lot of Bostonians are clamoring for nonstop flights to Brazil. Can you help us out with that?

Through Panama, we connect seven Brazilian cities. We wouldn’t be doing the nonstop because our business model is based on connecting in the Hub of the Americas in Panama. But what will happen is that we will facilitate travel to Brazil, and I bet that it will eventually result in someone flying direct to Brazil. It’s happened before.

Given your Worcester connections, any chance we’ll get a Worcester to Panama flight?

Yes, there’s a chance, but before that happens, Holy Cross has to win the NCAA basketball tournament. If the Crusaders win the NCAA, we’re flying to Worcester.

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.

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