The History Of Copa Airlines: An All Boeing 737 Operator

Copa Airlines is the State carrier in Panama and one of the most successful companies across Latin America. This airline has created the Hub of the Americas; it connects with every country in the Americas through Tocumen International Airport.

Copa B737
Copa Airlines is one of Latin America’s most famous and successful airlines. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying.

The airline started operations in 1947 as the National Airline of Panama. It began operations with flights to three cities in Panama, using Douglas DC-3/C47 planes. Nowadays, Copa Airlines has a fleet of only Boeing 737 aircraft and believes it will come out strengthened from the COVID-19 pandemic; 2022 will be a consolidation year, Copa CEO Pedro Heilbron recently stated.

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Copa Airlines’ history

The Panamanian carrier started operations on August 15, 1947. Pan American World Airways took a 32% stake, along with a group of Panamanian investors. Copa Airlines began operations with flights to three cities in Panama. It had a fleet of Douglas DC-3/C47 planes.

It took nearly 20 years before Copa Airlines went international. As time went by, Copa became an almost international carrier. It only has one domestic route currently, between Tocumen and David.

In 1966, Copa Airlines launched three weekly flights to San Jose, Costa Rica, its first international destination.

Three years later, Copa Airlines introduced its connectivity to Kingston, Jamaica, Managua, Nicaragua, and Barranquilla, Colombia using its AVRO 748 fleet. In the seventies, the airline added Medellin, Cartagena, San Salvador, and Guatemala as destinations.

The History Of Copa Airlines: An All Boeing 737 Operator
Copa Airlines in one of its original liveries. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia Commons.

The Boeing 737

Nowadays, we know Copa Airlines as one of Boeing’s loyal customers. It has a fleet of 78 Boeing 737 family aircraft. Moreover, it still has to receive 41 new planes from the 737 MAX family, according to ch-aviation.

Copa’s love with the 737 began in 1980. That year, the airline withdrew from the domestic market to focus on its international reach. It also added the first Boeing 737-100 to its fleet. Little by little, it grew its 737 fleet. By April 2015, the carrier purchased 61 B737 MAX aircraft (plus ten options that were later executed) in a deal worth over US$6.6 billion.

Nevertheless, Copa has also had other aircraft families along with its history. The Panamanian carrier was the first Latin American customer of the Embraer 190. Just recently, it sold the last of its E190 to the Australian carrier Alliance Airlines.

LATAM and Copa Airlines
Copa Airlines now flies to every country in the Americas. Here, the aircraft landed at Bogota International Airport, Colombia. Photo: Daniel Martínez Garbuno | Simple Flying.

Hub of the Americas and the United connection

Copa Airlines moved to Tocumen International Airport in 1992. Shortly after, it created the successful ‘Hub of the Americas.’ It launched flights to Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the US in the previous decade. Between 1992 and 1997, Copa launched operations to Caracas, Mexico City, Santiago, Cali, Bogota, Quito, Guayaquil, Lima, Buenos Aires, and Havana. Then, Continental Airlines acquired 51% of Copa in 1999.

Following the deal, Copa Airlines acquired several Boeing 737 NG planes and changed its livery, making it very similar to Continental’s (and United’s nowadays).

Since that happened, Copa Airlines has positioned itself as one of Latin America’s top airlines.

Copa Airlines Tocumen
Copa Airlines flies out of Tocumen International Airport in Panama City. Photo: Getty Images

What will happen in 2022?

Simple Flying and several media outlets spoke with Copa Airlines’ CEO, Pedro Heilbron, earlier this week. During ALTA’s Airline Leaders Forum in Bogota, Heilbron spoke about Copa’s plans.

The airline plans to finish 2021 with around 80% of its pre-pandemic capacity, although it will have lower load factors and cheaper fares due to the crisis. Next year will be of consolidation, he said. It won’t be a year to experiment, so that we won’t see many new routes.

In terms of fleet, Copa received seven Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in 2021. It will receive eight in 2022 until it gets the 71 aircraft it ordered from Boeing.

Regarding the retirement of its Boeing 737-700 fleet, Pedro Heilbron said that it will come, eventually. At the moment, the airline has six B737-700 and will keep them for three years. After that, they will be retired, and Copa will focus on its B737 MAX and B737-800 fleets.

Have you ever flown with Copa Airlines? How was your experience? Let us know in the comments.