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Pedro Heilbron

Pedro Heilbron has spent over two decades carefully building the foundation for Panama's flagship carrier, Copa Airlines.

Contrary to the North American airline industry, Latin American air travel has soared over the past decade with an expanding middle class and a boom in business. The region is projected to be among the three fastest growing regions in the world for the next 20 years, together with the Middle East and Asia, making it a highly lucrative market for both home-grown and international players.

No other airline has embodied the spectacular growth of this industry in Latin America more than the Panamanian carrier Copa Airlines, led by its personable CEO Pedro Heilbron since 1988. Beginning as an obscure domestic carrier in 1947, Copa now offers flights to 59 destinations in 28 countries throughout North, Central and South America and the Caribbean, all from Tocumen International Airport in Panama City, Panama. This year, the company forecasts over 10 million passengers, up from 8.3 million in 2012.

“[The Latin American economic boom] has a lot to do with our success,” admits Heilbron in an interview with the Boston Globe, but he also sees the relationship as a two way street. “Panama is not an industrial nation. We don’t really produce stuff for export,” he says, but Copa can leverage, “its geographic position and the connectivity that it brings to the region and the world,” playing its part to drive the growth of Panama’s economy.

Up until the 1980s, Copa was a little known regional carrier. It was after pulling out of the domestic market and aggressively increasing its international connections that the airline began to raise its profile in Latin America. Four years after Mr. Heilbron’s arrival in 1988, Copa signed a strategic alliance with El Salvador-based TACA Airlines, marking the beginning of a new era. It was after this agreement that Copa began operating out of Tocumen International Airport, turning it into a strategic, ultra-efficient Hub of the Americas, which has become the focal point of its operations.

Before Copa developed its hub at Tocumen, travellers often had to take long, multi-stop flights. A trip from Panama to many South American destinations, for example, often meant a highly inconvenient stopover in Miami. The poor connectivity was further exacerbated by the lack of good alternatives to flying, such as rail and road transportation.

During the 1990s, Copa added dozens of international routes and forged alliances with a number of Latin American airlines, such as LACSA of Costa Rica, Aviateca of Guatemala, and NICA of Nicaragua. When the alliance expired in 1998, Heilbron spearheaded the airline’s partnership and strategic alliance with the American Continental Airlines in 1998, allowing Copa to bring its operations up to world-class standards.” We adopted their service standards, their frequent flyer program, shared flights and offices…and adopted their livery under Copa’s name,” boasts Heilbron.

Copa’s growth is all about the strong foundation that’s been constructed over the past two decades, Heilbron believes. “What we see today has happened over the last 20 years,” he said in an interview with Latin Trade. Much of the airline’s success can thus be attributed to its Panama city hub, which allows the airline to very efficiently consolidate traffic from many destinations that would not otherwise merit point-to-point service.

Creating the capacity and service level needed to compete in the ‘big leagues’ also required significant investment in recruiting and training. Today, the company mobilizes over 8,000 employees throughout the region. It also operates a modern and fuel-efficient fleet of Boeing 737s and sleek new Embraer 190 jets, which translates to lower maintenance and fuel costs, and was a pioneer in incorporating new, cost-effective technologies, such as Web-based and mobile check-in services.

Last year, the airline’s parent company, Copa Holdings, posted a net income of $310.4 million, an impressive 17% of its $1.83 billion in operating revenues, and looks set to maintain this performance in the coming years. Copa has the capacity and the customer service record to benefit from the continued growth of the Latin American market more than any other operator. “We were ahead of the curve,” said Heilbron. “We connected the dots for intra-Latin America travel.”

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