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Copa Airlines is an affordable option for flying between the US and South America. The Pros: Great service despite some aircraft-related complications. The Cons: One of the worst meals I’ve ever had on an airplane, cramped seats, limited IFE options and no Wi-Fi.
I have to admit I get a kick out of booking an international trip while I’m away on another international trip. Since I never know when a good deal will pop up, I always keep my eyes open, even when I’m traveling. That’s how I came across a pretty good fare to Bogotá while I was in Singapore. Though Avianca flies there nonstop from my home in Los Angeles, I didn’t mind taking a one-stop flight on Copa Airlines — which would connect at the carrier’s hub in Panama City, Panama (PTY) — to save money. Here’s what that first leg of the trip was like.
I spotted the round-trip fare from Los Angeles (LAX) to Bogotá (BOG) with a stop in Panama City for $392 on Google Flights. Since I was able to match the flights I wanted in the Amex Travel portal, I charged the fare to my Platinum Card from American Express, which allowed me to earn 5x points or, in this case, 1,960 Membership Rewards points. Had I chosen not to pay cash, the same flight would have cost me 39,206 MR points. Alternatively, I could have paid with another travel credit card like the Chase Sapphire Reserve or the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which would have let me earn 3x or 2x Ultimate Rewards points for the travel purchase, respectively.
As my travel dates approached, I downloaded the Copa app to my Android phone only to find that it wouldn’t work — it kept opening and immediately closing. After much troubleshooting, I still couldn’t get it to function, so I deleted it. Copa’s website worked much better and I was able to select a seat and add my MileagePlus number (Copa is a Star Alliance partner, so you can earn United miles) and passport information.
A few days before the flight, I received an email from Copa with an upgrade offer asking if I wanted to bid against other travelers for a business-class seat. Clicking the link brought me to a website where the default offer for the upgrade was $270 — the lowest bid I could submit was $240 and the highest $440. Unlike a similar offer I’d received for the short hop from Panama City to Bogotá, there was no option to buy it immediately — if I wanted an upgrade, I’d have to win an auction — so I passed.
Check-In and Boarding
Copa sent an email reminder to check in 24 hours before the flight — it was in Spanish, but I figured out enough to click the big button and was able to check in through the mobile website with no problem. I even changed my seat to an otherwise empty row. After downloading the boarding pass, I was a little surprised to see that I’d been placed in Boarding Group 4, especially since on the return flight, I was in Group 2 and given “Prefer Access.” Because I was traveling with no checked bags, I was able to go right to security. While the TSA checkpoint lines at LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal are notoriously long, my 1:30am departure time meant much shorter wait times.
Normally, I would have planned to stop at the KAL Lounge — free to enter with my Priority Pass membership, which I had courtesy of the Amex Platinum Card — but the Priority Pass app said the lounge closed to cardholders at 8:00pm. Many of the shops and eateries in the terminal were closed as well and the whole place was pretty empty.
Boarding was set to begin at 12:53am, which is exactly when I arrived at the dimly lit gate. LAX provided power outlets between some of the seats and free Wi-Fi to keep us busy until we entered the plane. Passengers were already lining up, and I couldn’t tell if boarding had officially begun — at 12:58am, announcements in English and Spanish welcomed Group 1.
Boarding continued smoothly, with one agent processing all the passes and passports, and by 1:05am it was time for Group 4. There couldn’t have been more than 15 people still waiting to board. When my boarding pass was scanned, the agent told me, “You need to go see her at counter.” The counter agent asked me some security questions and less than a minute later, I was back in line and entering the aircraft by 1:14am, my roll-aboard bag fitting easily in the overhead bin. The door was locked at 1:31am, with wheels up by 1:49am.
Cabin and Seat
As soon as I boarded, I experienced a strange sense of familiarity — the seating and styling looked a lot like some of the United planes I’d flown on. The 144 economy seats were arranged in a 3-3 configuration, measuring 17 inches wide with 31 inches of pitch.
My seat felt narrower, and the legroom was tight. It also didn’t help that my seat cushion was positioned with a valley between the back of the cushion and the seat-back.
While I didn’t end up with the entire row to myself, I was still glad to have an empty center seat next to me so I could store my backpack there and cross my legs. I noticed the lifejacket was dangling from beneath the center seat and, despite my trying to point it out to the flight attendant, it stayed that way for the duration of the flight.
Other than that, everything was in good working condition and reasonably clean. The airline provided a fleecy blanket but no pillow, and flight attendants handed out headphones for the in-flight entertainment system.
While the IFE played on a nine-inch screen that had a USB power outlet, there was no other in-seat power to charge your devices and no Wi-Fi. The IFE system was stocked with free movies, games, music and maps, though the selection was uninspired. Of the 34 movies available, five were advertised as “recently released” and one of them was actually from September of last year. The controls were not intuitive and I had to help my neighbor figure out how to turn her monitor off — her screen had to be restarted three times throughout the flight with no success.
The biggest issue I had with this cabin was the lighting. Even when the rest of the cabin lights were off, a bright light illuminated part of the aisle right near me. I asked the flight attendant twice to turn it off and was finally told that the captain said, “The system isn’t working.” It stayed lit for the entire flight. When I asked if there was a seat available in the dark, she said she would look. Five minutes later, she said there were two seats available in the aisle of the last row. I weighed my options — a window seat with bright light or an aisle seat in the dark where I’d get jostled by passengers waiting for the lavatory — and elected to stay put.
The flight attendant returned five minutes later to offer my neighbor and me a drink — no one else was being served, so I concluded that it was compensation for our troubles. I chose red wine, which was served quickly in a plastic cup.
20 minutes later, the flight attendant returned with an eye mask, which she offered on the condition that I keep it a secret because she didn’t have enough for everyone. I travel with my own eye mask so I declined, but I did appreciate her sympathy for my situation.
Food and Beverage
Two hours after takeoff, I awoke to an announcement telling us to fasten our seat belts. Other than the special treatment my neighbor and I had received, I saw no evidence of a beverage service. It wasn’t until another hour had passed that breakfast was served. I chose eggs over pancakes and was served the hot foil-wrapped dish on a tray with nonfat raspberry yogurt, a wrapped white roll with vegetable-oil spread, a fruit cup covered in plastic wrap and plastic utensils. Beverage service followed shortly after.
This was among the worst meals I’ve ever had on an airplane. Not only did the food look bewildering — are those onions or potatoes? Is that turkey or ham? — it felt and tasted just … wrong. The hot plate contained a gelatinous loaf that was lukewarm and disintegrated on my fork. I didn’t want more than one bite anyway. This, presumably, was the egg dish, served alongside a tepid spinach that was boiled into a wet rag and two thin slices of salty turkey sandwich meat.
The packaged yogurt was watery and sickly sweet, and it was easy to see why: The second listed ingredient was sugar, the third water. The only tolerable part was the fruit cup, with small chunks of pineapple, melon and a grape that were all crisp and sweet. When the tray was collected 35 minutes later, most of the contents were still intact.
About 90 minutes after that, the plane touched down in Panama City, with the door opening at 10:03am local time, 10 minutes ahead of schedule.
This flight obviously had some problems, but I appreciated that the three flight attendants in economy did what they could to tend to them. While the food was bad, the movies were dated, the seats were cramped and the lights didn’t turn off, we did land early, the ride was smooth and the mileage posted to my MileagePlus account a few days later. I certainly would look at another airline the next time I’m traveling to South America, but I can’t say I’d refuse to fly with Copa again based on this experience. And considering my flight home was delayed by more than six hours, I got off easy on this one.
All photos by the author.
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