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Raleigh-Durham gets new route to Panama City

by Staff

Copa Airlines is planning to launch a couple of new routes to North America in the coming months: one to a fast-growing East Coast airport in the U.S. and another that’s soon to be a major airport for leisure travelers in Mexico.

The Panama flag carrier on Monday announced new service to Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) from its home base Tocumen International Airport (PTY) in Panama.

Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU) leaders announce the new route to Panama City. SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Its 16th U.S. destination, Copa will operate the route four times weekly with its Boeing 737-800 aircraft starting in late June.

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Also announced Monday, the Panama City-based carrier said it would add two additional cities beyond RDU. It will join the growing list of airlines planning service to the brand-new Felipe Carrillo Puerto Airport (TQO) in Tulum, Mexico. The airport is set to welcome international airlines for the first time next month, and in the process, it will give travelers a much easier link to the popular Mexico beach destination. In South America, Copa will add service to the Brazilian destination of Florianopolis.

In the U.S., however, Copa’s new flights to RDU are the show-stopper.

Copa’s service to Raleigh-Durham

Copa’s nonstop service between Raleigh-Durham and Panama City, Panama, launches June 21.

From the outset, Copa will operate four weekly round trips, with flights on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

Here’s what the schedule looks like:

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  • RDU-PTY: Departs 4:20 p.m. and arrives 7:46 p.m.
  • PTY-RDU: Departs 8:56 a.m. and arrives 2:28 p.m.

The 737-800 Copa will fly for the route has 16 business-class seats, 24 premium (or extra legroom) seats, and 120 seats in the main cabin.

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Copa’s growing US route map

Copa executives on hand for the route announcement Monday said adding an RDU pin to its U.S. route map is part of its larger goal to grow capacity 10% to 12% over each of the next several years in line with its growth last year, chief commercial officer Dennis Cary said.

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

“Part of our growth strategy is both adding more service in places we already fly, but also adding new routes,” Cary said in an interview with TPG.

Here’s what Copa’s summer 2024 route map to the U.S. looked like prior to the RDU service announcement, per aviation analytics company Cirium.

CIRIUM

The airline added nonstop flights to Austin Bergstrom International Airport (AUS) and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) last year.

According to Cary, part of Copa’s growth is fueled by demand from travelers well outside Panama who are not only interested in flying the carrier to a final destination in Panama City but also interested in using the airline to connect to one of its dozens of destinations in South America, Central America and the Caribbean. This is something that’s far more prevalent today than, say, five years ago, he said.

“The development of the U.S. traveler, and particularly the U.S. leisure traveler, into parts of our network is definitely expanded versus what it would have been in 2019,” Cary said. “That’s part of what makes these new routes exciting: We’re not only reliant on our core customer base in Latin America, but really developing a following here in the U.S.”

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RDU gaining international footing

Meanwhile, Copa’s arrival at RDU is just the latest bit of good news the airport has gotten of late.

Just last month, it was one of the U.S. airports that benefitted the most from a major route shakeup at Frontier, which launched around a half-dozen new routes to RDU.

It’s also now a crew base for recent startup low-cost carrier Avelo, and it has gained a number of routes via another startup airline, Breeze.

Terminal 2 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

But RDU isn’t just getting new routes aboard domestic-centric, ultra-low-cost carriers.

Aeromexico, for instance, will launch nonstop service from there to Mexico City International Airport (MEX) this summer. Lufthansa will also begin serving RDU with nonstops to Frankfurt Airport (FRA). That’s on top of Air France’s nonstop to Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), which launched last fall (replacing a prior Delta Air Lines route).

The airport has existing transatlantic service to London’s Heathrow Airport (LHR) aboard American Airlines. Air Canada flies to both Toronto and Montreal from RDU.

Even before unveiling the Copa route, RDU was set to see seats to international destinations increase by 75% this summer, compared to five years ago, according to Cirium data.

“We’re adding new airlines and new destinations at a record pace,” airport authority board chair Ellis Hankins said at Monday’s event, noting major expansion plans at the airport for the coming years to accommodate the growth.

“Gate management challenges are a great problem to have,” Hankins said.

The airport saw a record 14.5 million passengers in 2023, narrowly surpassing the mark set in 2019. After adding service to 25 nonstop markets last year, it’s already gained five new destinations in the first few weeks of 2024.

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