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Group effort landed Copa service

Massport, state pushed hard for new Panama flight

The inaugural Copa Airlines Flight 718 from Panama City was welcomed to Logan Airport with a traditional water canon salute.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

The inaugural Copa Airlines Flight 718 from Panama City was welcomed to Logan Airport with a traditional water canon salute.

PANAMA CITY — This city of soaring skyscrapers, ocean views, and traffic-clogged streets doesn’t seem like a destination that a lot of Bostonians would put at the top of their list. Yet the Massachusetts Port Authority, the Patrick administration, and the state’s business community devoted a considerable amount of effort to convince a little known airline to fly between the Panamanian capital and Logan International Airport.

The undertaking culminates on Thursday, when Copa Airlines launches its inaugural Boston-to-Panama City flight, offering a free meal and movies in three languages during the 5½-hour trip. It will be the first nonstop service to Latin America since Taca Airlines stopped flying to San Salvador in 2006.

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The time and effort spent to bring Copa to Logan show the increasing importance of opening international routes as the state’s technology, biotechnology, and other industries seek new markets in a rapidly globalizing economy. Just last year, Logan began its first nonstop route to Asia after a major campaign to convince Japan Airlines to offer Boston-to-Tokyo service.

Competition for international routes has become increasingly fierce. Boston beat out Madrid and Stockholm to get Japan Airlines, and topped San Francisco, Denver, and Tampa to become Copa’s eighth US destination.

Logan now has 33 international destinations, up from 26 a decade ago, and is pursuing routes to China and the Middle East.

“It’s a long process,” said Yil Surehan, director of airline route development for Massport, which runs Logan. “You hear ‘no’ in many, many languages.”

Latin America, one of the fastest growing regions in the world, has been on the agenda of local officials for several years. Governor Deval Patrick led a trade mission to Brazil and Chile in late 2011, and visited Colombia earlier this year.

While Panama City is not a particularly popular destination from Boston on its own, it is one of the most important hubs in the world due to its location between North and South America and its airport’s many connections throughout Latin America.

Passengers connecting in Panama don’t have to go through customs and immigration there; baggage is checked to final destinations.

Copa, founded in 1947, flies to 57 cities in Latin America and the Caribbean out of Panama City — more than any other carrier. Logan officials hope the route will stimulate enough traffic to attract more nonstops to the region, namely in Brazil, which is Boston’s biggest Latin American destination and trading partner.

“Panama City is an ideal hub,” said Michael Friedman, an aviation analyst at Delaware Investments in Boston. “Being centrally located, its geography is unbeatable, and mild year-round weather means 99.8 to 99.9 percent completion factors.”

One of the keys to landing the flight was all the local support to help drum up passengers, said Joe Mohan, a senior vice president at Copa, which had only one US destination, Miami, until 2000.

“How prone are people to fly someone who they don’t know?” he said. “ ‘Copa Airlines. Who’s Copa Airlines? Are they going to have chickens running around?’ ”

The courtship began five years ago. Surehan, who worked in route development for the airlines before joining Massport, put together forecasts on passenger traffic and revenues, and made his case to Copa at a conference in 2008 — including a few hundred thousand dollars in incentives. The airline was intrigued, but not convinced.

So he kept making the pitch, year after year, until finally three key factors converged: The Boston to Latin America market grew to more than 400,000 passengers a year; Copa was expanding rapidly; and American Airlines, the major carrier in the market, shrank its presence at Logan.

In the meantime, Massport put together a task force of about 300 executives from local companies, universities, and government agencies with interests in Central and South America to give the airline hard evidence of demand — and to show Copa what Boston has to offer.

South America, for example, is an important market for Hopkinton data storage giant EMC Corp., said spokesman Christopher Goode, and the new Panama flight offers a “much easier switching point.” Passengers returning to Boston will no longer have to connect through another US city, for instance, eliminating the need to recheck luggage and navigate security in the middle of a trip.

“Latin America is an emerging market with the potential for great growth,” said JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, a public policy group. “The ability to get there and back, and get folks here from there, is integral to building those partnerships.”

While Boston was building its case for Copa, the airline was sorting through suitors. Boston was an attractive route because it was the largest US market without nonstop service to Latin America. It also has a surprisingly robust Latino presence, Mohan said — including one of the largest Brazilian populations in the country.

The Boston market had another advantage: Copa chief executive Pedro Heilbron went to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, and many of his family members attended college in Massachusetts. “His familiarity with the marketplace was an asset for us,” said Thomas Glynn, chief executive of Massport.

Local efforts to push the new flight continued after a deal was struck. Patrick hosted a reception for Copa in April — the first time the airline has been greeted by a governor. Massport then took airline executives to East Boston, a heavily Latino neighborhood, where speeches were made, empanadas were served, and autographs were signed by New England Revolution soccer players.

“We have a huge immigrant population, many of whom are desperate to go home,” said Steven Snyder, vice president of development and marketing at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center.

The Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism also got in the game, putting on workshops in Panama, Costa Rica, and Colombia. Latin Americans are familiar with the state — “That’s where you go to study” — said Jackie Ennis, who is with the state tourism agency, but not as a leisure destination.

In Panama, the national tourism authority has committed $2.5 million to promote Copa’s routes and is putting together a road show in Boston to connect Panama tourist attractions with New England tour operators. The airline has stretched a banner touting the Boston flight across an overpass in Panama City.

The endeavors seem to be working. Massport told Copa it could expect its planes to be at least 78 percent full, and so far, the airline says, bookings are better than anticipated.

Local officials hope their efforts, and results, build Logan’s reputation.

“If we can show [carriers] that when you come to Boston that we are going to work very hard to make your route successful,” said Greg Bialecki, state secretary of Housing and Economic Development, “word will get around in the airline industry.”

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