Pedro Heilbron: CEO, Copa Holdings.

Author:Mann, Joseph A., JR.


From quiet beginnings as a small domestic air carrier, Panama's Copa Airlines has rocketed. Now it plays in the big leagues, and has be come one of the fastest growing airlines in Latin America, adding new planes and capacity, tacking more and more destinations onto its map, and steadily attracting more passengers.

For Pedro Heilbron, 54, CEO of Copa Holdings and Copa Airlines, it has been about building the foundations to deliver.

"What we see today has happened over the last 20 years," said Heilbron, of the airline's strong and sustained growth. "This year and last marked 20-plus years of capacity growth... We adopted world-class standards and service and a small airline became world class."

Heilbron pointed to several factors that helped lift Copa: innovation, new technology, a well trained and committed workforce, and robust economic growth in Panama, Copa's home base. Other parts of Latin America also surged economically, creating greater demand for better connectivity and direct flights among the 29 countries Copa serves.

Copa, which celebrates its 65th anniversary this year, responded by purchasing new planes and expanding its network

"We were ahead of the curve," said the businessman. "We connected the dots for intra-Latin America travel." Before Copa developed the Hub of the Americas, travelers had to take multi-stop flights, he noted. A trip from Panama to South America often meant a stopover in Miami. Meanwhile, there were no good alternatives to flying, like rail and road transportation. And as trade and investment expanded, there was new demand for air connectivity.

This year alone Copa, with an enviable on-time performance of over 90 percent, added flights to Las Vegas (USA), Recife (Brazil), Liberia (Costa Rica), Willemstad (Curacao) and Iqnitos (Peru), and now flies to 64 dries, including North America, Central America, South America and the Caribbean. Copa has also increased the frequency of departures from its Panama hub. The payoff is in the numbers. Last year the airline's parent company, Copa Holdings posted net income of $310.4 million, representing 17 percent of its $1.83 billion in operating revenues.

Profits in 2011 increased by more than 22 percent over the previous year. In the first half of 2012 Copa Holdings, which is traded on the New York Stock Exchange, logged net income of $127.9 million on operating revenues...

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