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From many points in Central and South America, Copa offers connecting services via Panama to 13 US cities on a fleet of recent, well-kept 737s. Pros: efficient service from nice crews, easy connections, and (seriously!) an above-average inflight magazine. Cons: The lack of Wi-Fi could be a serious issue for some business travelers.

Panama-based Copa Airlines is rapidly making a name for itself as a connector between North, South and Central America, serving 80 destinations from Canada to Chile. It flies a fleet of 90 Boeing 737s and Embraer 190s — small by US standards but quite sizable otherwise — from its base in Panama City, which it calls “The Hub of the Americas.”

That sounds grandiose, but it’s not unjustified: The relatively compact Panama City Airport (PTY) is built for efficient connections, and Copa offers attractive options through it. The airline is also a member of Star Alliance along with United, meaning you can collect and spend MileagePlus miles on it.

Copa’s route map in its inflight magazine.

So when we needed to get from New York-JFK to Guatemala City (GUA) and back, we decided to try out a Copa connection via PTY, with the outbound segment in business class and the return in coach so we could compare the two classes.

In This Post

Booking

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, as mentioned above. Thanks to the card’s 5x bonus category on airfare booked directly with the airline, we earned a total of 2,355 Membership Rewards points, which are worth about $45 according to TPG’s latest valuations.

Crediting the flight to my United account, I earned 1,522 MileagePlus miles — 50% of distance traveled, since I was on a discounted L fare — and 3,044 miles qualifying for elite status, or 100% of distance traveled, in accordance with United’s earning chart for Copa flights.

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. MileagePlus is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, meaning it’s easy to accumulate miles, considering cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Preferred are both offering sign-up bonuses of 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 within the first three months of account opening.

Check-in: Guatemala City to Panama City

A word of warning about getting to the airport in Guatemala City: Allow ample time for traffic.

Copa had taken me to Guatemala from Panama City on a Boeing 737, but my ride back was going to be a smaller Embraer 190. That’s a large regional jet that will be familiar to some US flyers because JetBlue has a lot of them (American flies them too but is phasing them out, and you’ll also find them on short-range Air Canada routes). While big for a regional plane at around 100 seats, it’s still a regional, with a 2-2 seat arrangement in coach and 1-2 in business, and that means smaller overhead bins than on the 737.  So my 22-inch Briggs & Riley roller had to be checked.

I’m a big proponent of traveling light and not checking luggage — I want my things in my view at all times, which also eliminates the chance that your luggage won’t arrive when you do. But the Copa gate agent was adamant, and the bag didn’t fit in the measurement tool, so in the hold it went, in the only minor annoyance of an otherwise speedy and pleasant check-in process.

I had paid $15 on the Copa site to select a seat in the forward part of the cabin, using my United MileagePlus Club card, which allows me access to United Club and Star Alliance lounges, since I’m not a United or Star elite, and my chosen seat showed up at check-in with no problems.

Lounge

Thanks to that United MileagePlus Club card, I could have accessed the Copa lounge, but I was traveling with a TPG colleague, associate editor Brendan Dorsey, who was flying back to the States on Delta. So we went to GUA’s other lounge, Los Añejos, accessible to both of us as Priority Pass members. That turned out to have been a good idea.

We got table service with a menu, in a pleasantly small, clean and compact lounge with a full bar and comfortable seating, plus music at an unobtrusive volume. Service was a notable point: When an attendant heard me ask Brendan if he had seen a free power outlet nearby, he promptly brought me a portable USB charger. We had roast beef sandwiches that we both found to be above average, and when it came time to head to our respective gates, we agreed that Los Añejos was a cool little lounge that did its job well.

PriorityPass lounges often do not compare favorably to airline-branded counterparts, but this one stood out. The menu featured no vegetarian options after 11am, though.

Boarding

At the gate, I found our ride, a 2009-vintage E190 registered in Panama with the tail code HP-1569CMP, being fueled.

Tracking site Flightradar24 showed that it spends its time shuttling around Central America and the Caribbean on short flights, but also that, thanks to its range capabilities, considerable for a regional jet, it can sometimes get from Panama south to Manaus in its native Brazil or north to Monterrey, Mexico. The latter is a big jump for a regional plane, with almost four hours in the air. Our flight to Panama would last just two.

Boarding began in an orderly fashion, something that I saw on all my four flights on Copa, and with a Zone 2 boarding pass, I was on board four minutes later.

Cabin and Seat

Copa flies several configurations of the E190, with two classes or just economy. On this run, we got the one with 10 biz-class seats and 84 in coach.


Seat 7A was nothing special, just as I expected on a standard E190 in coach. No monitor (including overhead), no power outlets, pretty normal 31-inch legroom. I was okay with all of that. I always bring stuff to read on planes, and true to the AvGeek creed, I always get a window seat to photograph from; the lack of entertainment would not bother me. But the dirty window, unlike the spotless ones on the 737s that had got me to Guatemala, did.

Like all the other Copa crews I experienced, this one was friendly and spoke fluent English with notable flourishes, like when a flight attendant announced, “Your flight is under the command of Captain Rafael Sánchez.” I loved the old-fashioned feel of those words, as well as knowing the skipper’s name. Every Copa captain I’ve flown with also introduced himself or herself over the PA personally.

GUA is a tiny airport, and we were airborne quickly and on time, passing over an Airbus A320 with Mexican low-cost carrier Interjet that had just landed and was taxiing in.

Guatemala City is the largest city in Central America, and a seat on the left side, taking off or landing, was a good way to get a visual gauge of its size.

Amenities

Copa’s inflight magazine proved to be an interesting read, compared to the bland offerings that US airlines put in their seatbacks. The cover story on Chile’s mountains played amicably on South American national stereotypes — Brazilians don’t know how to handle snow! — in a way that felt anything but offensive. A fantastical short story by Venezuelan writer Ednodio Quintero came with a lyrical English translation and scary illustrations to go with a challenging text. Not the stuff of your average plane mag.

Food and Beverage

Soon after reaching our cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, the snack service began. In business class into GUA, I had been given a full hot meal, but in coach I got the choice between a ham-and-cheese or a chicken-and-cheese sandwich. The former was industrial but filling. The Coca-Cola I got with it was warm, which I didn’t mind, but others might have objected. Also warm: the air in the cabin, despite individual A/C vents.

Boarding: Panama City to New York City

With a tight connection, which wasn’t a problem at the relatively small PTY airport, I went directly to the gate where Flight CM804 to JFK was departing. The obvious difference setting Gate 4 apart from gates for flights bound elsewhere than the US was a metal detector. You had to go through a security screening — shoes off, laptops out, the whole thing — before entering the waiting area, and photos weren’t allowed.

The monitor above the gate agents could have been used to announce which zone was boarding, instead of a cryptic “gate attended.”

Several of Copa’s 67 Boeing 737s were docked at the terminal. Ours was registered HP-1831CMP, a Model 800 built in 2013 and delivered new to Copa from the factory in Renton, Washington.

Arriving at my window seat, 29F, I was delighted to see there was no blanket on the middle seat — the airline hadn’t sold it yet, and so there was no need to put a blanket on it! With any luck, I’d have no neighbor.

Standard 31-inch legroom and seat-cover motifs out of the 1990s didn’t inspire enthusiasm, but a free middle seat in coach is a gift from heaven. I wasn’t about to complain.


I couldn’t make either my own or the middle seat’s USB outlet power up my phone, but with no Wi-Fi to use, this wasn’t a big deal. Unlike in business class, there was no power outlet. After a serious (as in not attempting to be humorous) safety video, a rarity these days, we took off on time at 6:30pm, with a forecasted flight time of four hours, 34 minutes.

Amenities

Half an hour after takeoff, flight attendants distributed headphones, a bit late for passengers who didn’t have their own and might have wanted to use the seatback entertainment system.

Lights went out at 8:50pm, with two and a half hours to go. I had time to comfortably watch a movie, from a selection of titles that was a little larger than on the Copa flights to Guatemala I’d taken a few days earlier. The touchscreen, of the most recent generation, was sharp and easy to use but did not swivel, so when the person in front reclined, I had to twist my neck to see. The map did not allow me to pinch and zoom. Overall, a decent entertainment system for a flight of this duration.

Food and Beverage

One hour in, unfazed by a spot of moderate turbulence, flight attendants rolled the meal cart down the aisle offering pasta with chicken or rice with beef, which is what I chose. Unlike the warm Coke on my previous flight, the sparkling water I asked for came with ice. The food was worthy of a passing grade, and that’s about it. “Pretty standard Y class meal,” my notes from this flight read.

Coffee and another glass of water came later. Nothing out of the ordinary, which was just fine in coach class.

FAs came through with water one more time, and we made our way uneventfully up the East Coast and landed at JFK at 11:19pm, Panama time, 12:19am in New York, half an hour after lights on signaled it was time to prepare for landing.

Overall Impression

On the outside, Copa planes may look like United’s, thanks to Copa’s association with Continental, whose logo United has kept. On the inside, though, service is generally nicer and warmer than what is usually seen on US carriers. That warm service, and the ease of connecting through Panama City, is what stood out during my four flights to Guatemala and back with Copa, and what would make me want to fly it again.

All photos by the author.

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