Panamerican Ambition: A Review of Copa's Biz Class on the 737 From NYC to Guatemala City via Panama
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Panama-based Copa Airlines has made its name connecting destinations in the Americas through its Panama City hub with a sizable fleet of Boeing 737s. It serves 80 destinations, all in North, Central and South America, including 13 in the US; it's profitable and growing; and it's a member of Star Alliance like United Airlines, meaning you can earn and spend United miles on its flights.
That made us want to try out its business class on a recent trip to Guatemala, going from New York-JFK to Guatemala City (GUA) via Copa's Panama home base (PTY), which it calls "The Hub of the Americas."
Copa also recently introduced the first Boeing 737 in the Americas with lie-flat seats in business class, a rarity on 737s — they can be found elsewhere only on flydubai, while United is thinking about it. But at this point Copa has only one lie-flat 737 MAX 9 in the fleet, and it's sending it all across its network. The day we needed to fly, JFK-to-Panama City services were all operated by Boeing 737-800s featuring plain old recliner seats in business class. Copa has 68 of these 737s, which will soon cease to be produced as the new MAX models take over.
Lie-flats on a single-aisle 737 may seem overkill, but they make sense for Copa, which flies some of the longest 737 routes in the world. Its nonstop flight to Buenos Aires (EZE), for example, spans 3,300 miles, or more than seven hours in the air. A flat bed on such a long flight is much better than the 28-degree recline offered in the current biz class.
By the way, if seeing a Copa plane makes you think at first that you're looking at a United jet, you've got a point. Compañia Panameña de Aviación, the airline's full name, used to be 49% owned by Continental Airlines until 2008, and adopted a very similar color scheme and logo. After United merged with Continental in 2010, it kept its livery. So, at first blush, United and Copa look a bit like the same airline, although they have no affiliation other than being in the same alliance.
We booked with The Platinum Card® from American Express, paying $471 for a round-trip itinerary with the outbound segment in business class and the return in economy. We earned a total of 2,355 Membership Rewards points, which are worth about $45 according to TPG's latest valuations.
On the Copa site, I chose Seat 1F for the JFK-to-PTY leg and 3A for PTY to GUA so I could test both a bulkhead and standard business-class seat on the same airplane model. Both legs were flown by a 737-800 with 16 biz seats. The site helpfully told us the recline of the seats — 28 degrees for biz except 21 for the last row, and 11 degrees in coach.
It took four days for the miles from the two flights to post to my United account. I earned a total of 3,044 Mileage Plus miles, or 100% of distance flown, but 4,566 Premier Qualifying Miles — the ones that count for getting elite status — or 150% of distance flown, thanks to the biz-class bonus. I didn't earn Premier Qualifying Dollars, since the tickets hadn't been issued by United, but I did earn 2x the Premier Qualifying Segments, as specified in the United earnings table for Copa. If you'd prefer to redeem miles for this route, a good bet would be to book with MileagePlus miles, and you can expect to pay 17,500 miles for a one-way ticket in economy between JFK and PTY, or 30,000 (plus taxes and fees) for a ticket up front.
Check-in: New York to Panama City
What the Copa site did not do, however, was check me in. The check-in function did not work, even after repeated tries. I had no better luck with the Copa app on Android.
With a 5:54am departure, I was hoping I could check in remotely to gain a little more sleep. I checked in at the Copa desks at JFK's Terminal 4 at 4:30am — at least I had the place more or less to myself at that hour and was at security in five minutes flat from the time I entered the terminal.
Departures at such an early hour do not leave much time to enjoy a lounge. Leaving from T4 on a Copa business-class ticket — and being able to access Star Alliance lounges thanks to my Chase United MileagePlus card, plus having Priority Pass through other cards including the Chase Sapphire Reserve — I had my pick of three lounges, according to the LoungeBuddy app.
But the Copa desk agent told me the Wingtips lounge (in pink in the image below) was closed, even though LoungeBuddy said it was open 24/7. The Air India and Swiss lounge were closed too. With just 20 minutes to the scheduled boarding time, I went straight to Gate A7, where there was ample room to sit. Unlike most of the T4 gates, A7 wasn't a humongous trek from security, and Flight CM833 was on time.
Boarding began at 5:05am, mercifully with nobody crowding the gate.
On board, welcomed with a warm greeting by a flight attendant, I found a pretty standard-looking premium cabin in 2-2 layout — and no pillow and blanket at the seat next to mine, indicating that nobody had booked it and it would likely remain unoccupied.
It did remain empty, compensating for the relatively little legroom I had at the bulkhead compared to the rows of biz class behind me.
To my left were the mechanical seat controls, the monitor stowed under the armrest, the headphone jack and a powered USB outlet. The tray table extended from the right armrest, same as all other seats in the biz cabin. An adjustable headrest, a footrest and power outlet completed the seat's features.
Each pair of biz-class seats had two outlets above the life-jacket housing.
The upside of a brutal 3am alarm for an early-morning flight is often a spectacular sunrise, and the passengers on CM833 who hadn't lowered their window shades were richly rewarded for their lack of sleep. The thick cumulus clouds that had given us a bumpy climbout parted above 10,000 feet, revealing a glorious dawn. Copa kept the windows of our 737 clean, and as we made our way south, the westward view was stunning.
An FA saw me take photos and invited me to the forward galley.
"The view's even better from the other side!" she said.
This is exactly the kind of thing that makes an AvGeek passenger like an airline — and she was right, too. The oval window in the left forward door framed a distant storm cloud perfectly.
In front of that door, there was one smallish bathroom, standard for a 737.
Food and Beverage
Shortly after door closing, flight attendants distributed headphones —I used my own Bose noise-canceling set, a travel accessory I cannot recommend enough — but no welcome drink. I was hoping we'd get at least a much-needed glass of water, which wouldn't be offered until one hour later.
Our 737, a five-year-old model with the Panamanian registration HP-1835CMP, pushed back from the gate at 6:07am, as FAs distributed menus. Minutes later, as we taxied, they came back to take our orders. After the fruit plate, I chose the smoked turkey frittata, with orange juice and coffee. The other option was French toast.
At 6:42am, I finally got coffee and water. The FA serving me told me breakfast service would begin in 30 minutes.
Breakfast came, on a tray, at the advertised time. After the fruit plate, the highlight was the frittata, fluffier and less dry than your standard-issue airplane omelet.
There was no further meal service. One might have expected a snack shortly before landing on this four-hour, 38-minute flight, but most passengers in biz class appeared to be more concerned with getting some sleep, aided by the lights having been turned off for a couple of hours.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
First, the bad news: Copa has no Wi-Fi on any of its planes, nor has it decided to install it on the new 737 MAX. And, its selection of inflight entertainment was not very wide on my flight. IFE on my flight was, however, available in Portuguese, English and Spanish, a clear indication of Copa's pancontinental network and ambition. (It serves a considerable nine destinations in Brazil.) All prerecorded onboard announcements were trilingual as well.
The older-generation, touch-only screen — no remote — was not very responsive, often requiring a few presses.
The music library, featuring about 50 titles, was heavily geared toward the US and Latin American mainstream, except for a weirdly deep pocket of mid-20th century bebop jazz with Sonny Rollins, Freddie Hubbard, Bill Evans and Horace Silver, plus Nina Simone songs. I can't say it made a lot of sense, and the titles were not in alphabetical order, either, but I was glad someone at Copa was able to sneak something interesting into an otherwise bland music selection.
The TV section offered slimmer pickings still, with exactly four dramas and six comedies, plus a handful of very light documentaries about destination cities and two sports programs, one of which was "The Road to Russia" — a doc on the World Cup shot before the tournament and airing two and a half months after it! But Panamanians are proud of their small nation's team making the World Cup this year, for the first time ever. Despite losing all its games, the Panama soccer team played valiantly, and the airline was still celebrating with a dedicated tribute, complete with #Subelamarea ("the tide is rising") hashtag.
Out of about 40 movies available, I ended up watching "The Sentinel," an unsatisfying 2006 thriller about an assassination attempt on the president of the United States. (Spoiler alert: The president does not die. I recommend instead "No Way Out," the real masterpiece of the "there's a mole in Washington" genre.)
The cabin was on the cooler side, geared more to the US taste for cold air conditioning, and very quiet despite being mostly full, with 14 out of 16 seats occupied. A curtain and dividers provided separation from the 138 economy seats behind it.
The lights came back on a half hour before landing, as we began our descent over the Caribbean Sea, and an arrival guide centered on how to connect at PTY was pushed on the IFE — another sign that Copa's business model is clearly based on connecting traffic.
Ten minutes before touchdown, the flight attendants, who had provided discreet and efficient service, came to thank each passenger in business personally. Outside my window, Panama City could have easily fooled me into thinking I was landing in Miami.
Photographing my 737 had proved to be impossible at JFK, where pouring rain streaked the terminal windows, but was much easier at PTY, where it had immediately been surrounded by baggage carts and the pushback tug. A check of flight tracking site Flightradar24 revealed that it would soon be off for a quick turn to Managua, Nicaragua, and back, then up to Toronto right away. That's a busy bird, but airlines don't make money from planes on the ground. Analysts look at the "utilization rate," the number of hours per day that a plane spends in the air, as a key metric to gauge an airline's health (they are happy with Copa's, which is 12 hours on average.)
Lounge and Boarding: Panama City to Guatemala City
For an airline so focused on connections, Copa should invest in one key improvement at its flagship lounge: a warm buffet. When I got there at 10:30am on a Friday, the Copa Club at PTY wasn't too crowded and would have provided a passable if generic lounge experience, but the food was limited to bananas, cereal and unappetizing, plastic-looking donuts. After having a banana and a glass of water and reading a local newspaper — the reading material selection was either that or Panorama, Copa's inflight magazine — I left for my gate.
On the plus side, PTY was still a pretty compact airport, and getting to my connection flight was quick and easy. It had 40 gates altogether, arranged around a central body, with the lounge in the middle of it all. (And as evident in the map below, no Gate 13, for superstition.)
Cabin and Seat
Boarding was quick and uneventful. The first thing I noticed about Seat 3A was its vastly improved legroom over the bulkhead row I had on my previous flight. The 737 taking us to GUA was the exact same model with the exact same seat configuration I'd just flown from JFK, an 800 series, this one built in 2012 and bearing the registration HP-1726CMP.
Food and Beverage
With a forecast flight duration of one hour and 53 minutes, we just had time for lunch. After boarding, a flight attendant asked each passenger whether they wanted a beef filet or a fish filet, Italian or Caesar dressing for their salad, and what they wanted to drink. Unlike on the previous flight, there was no menu — not a big service fail on a flight shorter than two hours. The flight attendant didn't specify what the fish was.
We took off speedily at 11:40am, on time. Out of the port window, a large DHL warehouse indicated that PTY was a hub for freight carriers too.
Forty minutes after takeoff, we got a small plate of mixed nuts, served by flight attendants who cheerily wished every passenger "Buen provecho!" — enjoy! — but without the accompaniment of a drink. They were, however, perfectly warm, a very nice touch that many other airlines omit.
Fifteen minutes after the appetizer, the lunch trays came. My beef filet looked like tenderloin and was a little chewy, but complemented by a potato gratin that would have been perfectly fine, if bigger, at a good restaurant on the ground. I had coffee with it, not exactly a gourmet choice, but I still had a long day in front of me and desperately needed to stay awake.
The so-so salad and industrial bread were quite forgettable. Higher marks instead for the chocolate cake, one notch above the usual ultrasugary concoction that passes for dessert on many US airlines. All in all, not a bad meal for a premium cabin on a short-haul flight.
As we approached GUA over the lush, gorgeous landscape of Guatemala, a flight attendant walked down the cabin delivering a warm goodbye message to her passengers: "Que le vaya muy bien, y gracias para servirle" — roughly "May you have a very good day, and we're thankful for serving you."
There's only so much you can do on a vanilla 737 with standard recliner seats, and Copa did the job well, with no obvious failings. Friendly crews made getting from New York to Guatemala the long way easy. However, a less impersonal lounge at Copa's Panama City hub — with warm food — and more options for the inflight entertainment would have made for a much better experience. That said, Copa proved it can win my business again for flights to Latin America. If nothing else, the introduction of lie-flat seats on its 737s should put it on your radar too.
All photos by the author.