A weekend aboard Copa Air

Four flights covering 7,400 miles is not really all that much for a weekend of travel.  Nothing to sneer at, to be sure, but not a ton of miles covered.  The fact that I’m earning 150% credit thanks to the booking class helps to justify the trip, as does the rather great sale fare that I got the tickets at.  Plus, there is the fun of flying on Copa Air, a/k/a bizarro-world Continental.

Continental and Copa share a lot of similarities in their operations.  That makes sense considering that Continental used to own a decent chunk of the Panamanian carrier.  And even now that Continental has divested their ownership share Copa still seems to behave a lot like Continental.  They share a frequent flyer program – OnePass – and the Copa flight attendant uniforms strongly represent the last generation of Continental’s, for example.  And then there is the fact that their logos are significantly similar and that the two carriers operate with immunity from the United States to Panama and connections beyond.  Looking around in the galley on one of the flights I noticed that a couple of the bins are labeled as Continental rather than Copa.  Yeah, they are very tight.

But not everything is exactly the same.  There are just enough differences to make flying on Copa a somewhat jarring experience.  Sure, the upgrades still come through generally (I got all 4 this weekend) but Copa serves real meals on all their flights and serves booze from real bottles rather than minis.  As it would be described in India, “Same same, but different.”

I was conscious for three of the four flights this weekend.  The first – a 5:07am departure from New York City – I slept through entirely.  The others, however, were rather pleasant experiences.  We had printed menus on one of the three and the meals were consistent enough that I got to try one of everything that they are serving these days, I think.  There were ice cream sundaes at the end of each meal, and that goes a long way towards making a flight a success.  Of course, unlike Continental Copa doesn’t serve Grand Marnier on their flights.  Instead they offer a “Rum of the Month” program in Classe Ejecutiva and I took full advantage of that.  Sortof.

It turns out that this month the catering folks only put the good rum in the carts in the back of the plane.  So the first two times I ordered the ron especial I was actually drinking Bacardi.  I knew that it wasn’t that good but I just assumed I didn’t like the special rum.  It was only on my last fight, flight from Panama City back to New York, that I was able to have the conversation with the flight attendant and understand what was being served and solve that problem.  Thank goodness, as the special this month – Abuelo Añejo 12 year – was much, much, much better than the Bacardi.  I’m no longer wondering why I have to use so much ginger ale to cut it to provide decent flavor, for example.

Beyond the rum there are a number of other nice things about the Copa experience.  Full meals on all the flights, for example. It isn’t gourmet by any stretch but the food is pretty decent.  I had steak, chicken and different chicken as my three meals and all were completely tolerable.  Sure, there was a strange double salad first course on one of the flights but, well, it didn’t kill me.

Oh, and they serve ice cream sundaes on all the lunch and dinner flights. Yummy!

The food service was also much slower than I’m used to.  On one of the flights it was 45 minutes before the flight attendant showed up to ask what we wanted and another 30 minutes before drinks showed up. Certainly not the end of the world, but less attentive than I would expect from most airlines in the forward cabin. There’s a decent enough explanation for the slow service.  There is only one flight attendant working in the front cabin, expected to serve 14-16 passengers.  It simply isn’t possible for that to play out well.  But that’s the way they roll.  Maybe they have to since they serve a full meal in coach to the 150+ folks back there and that needs the extra body but it does diminish the service up front a bit.

Beyond the food and booze the flights were a great opportunity to meet people.  I was wearing my jetBlue shirt on the outbound flights and that was enough for the guy across the aisle on the JFK-Panama segment to start up a conversation.  Turns out that he used to work for jetBlue and now works for Copa in their airport operations group.  He commutes between Panama and New York most weekends.  We had an interesting conversation about impending expansion of the terminal in Panama City, the needs of the terminal (showers in the Presidents Club!) and how incredibly convenient it is as a connection point heading to Central or South America.

I met Tony, a guy who works in the elevator business.  We talked about our shared inability to speak Spanish, random visits to various Central American cities and how to better take advantage of the miles he’s been earning all these years.  I truly hope he does better than he has with them because he has never redeemed any and, quite frankly, that is a shame. On the plus side, I think I’ve started the education process for him and explained some of the better options he has with all those points.

And then, sitting in the Presidents Club in Panama City, I saw a guy who was obviously from New York (the Duane Reade bags give it away) and who looked pretty familiar.  I introduced myself and it turns out that we had met a while back at a FlyerTalk event.  We chatted for a bit in the lounge and then ended up sitting next to each other on the flight back to New York.  He was wrapping up a weekend in Buenos Aires and me from Mexico City.  Similar stories and adventures though also completely different. 

Such is the life of the frequent fliers.

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Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


  1. Copa has really low advertised fares on flights from Orlando/Miami to Panama. Like under $300 r/t. What’s the deal?

    Since they are so similar to Continental, can I use my USAirways frequent flyer account to rack up the miles? Also, I wasn’t really interested in going to Panama, but in light of the fare, I may do Costa Rica, Bogota, Quito.


  2. I looked through the pictures of your trip (both this post and the one before it). You take soooo many pictures of food. It’s really hilarious. You must love to eat.

    Do you just go from meal to meal to meal on these mileage runs? And, being on a plane for much of the time, do you gain wait easily?

    These are serious questions…not trying to bust on you.

  3. @koko – Copa is currently not in StarAlliance; they are an independent carrier with bilateral partnerships with a few other carriers, including Continental. They also use OnePass as their loyalty program. But because they aren’t part of *A you cannot earn Dividend Miles (or any other *A program points) while flying on them.

    As for where to go with them, I’d definitely consider Panama City. It is easy and relatively cosmopolitan as a destination and there are a number of very cool things to see in the area, from the Amador Causeway to the Miraflores Locks to Casco Viejo to Calle Central. Definitely worth spending a long weekend there.

    @MARK – Yes, I eat a lot. I love good food and I enjoy documenting airline food for no apparent reason. Particularly in foreign countries many of my adventures are just interludes between meals. There is something particularly enjoyable for me about finding and dining on local cuisine along the way.

    Fortunately I manage to walk around the places I’m visiting or otherwise get a bit of exercise along the way so I don’t put on too much weight. I’m a bit heavier than I was 6 months ago but I blame that on just not visiting the gym enough. That should change this month though.

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