I finally decided to dedicate a few minutes of my spare time to write this trip report. On this occasion I’ll try to focus on mentioning the most relevant details of my experience with Copa Airlines, in an effort to make your reading substantial and as light as possible. I sincerely hope you enjoy it.
This trip was arranged rather quickly. Two weeks before the start of summer vacations I was basically concentrated in finishing all my academic activities, and had only planned a lot of sleeping and resting for the holydays here in Medellin. Little did I know that I was going to spend a whole month in gorgeous San Diego, with part of my family who lives there. They purchased the tickets for my grandmother and I in San Diego, and they were sent by mail. We were advised that we were going to arrive in Los Angeles with Copa Airlines; not only were they the most affordable option [arriving to LAX is generally cheaper than SAN], but also the most convenient.
I packed my suitcase the day before and I was all set to go. Our trip would be:
-MDE-PTY with AeroRepublica [on behalf of Copa Airlines]
-PTY-LAX with Copa Airlines
Tuesday, June 13th, 2006
Airline: AeroRepublica [P5]
Flight number: P5 612 [codeshared with Copa]
Departing from: Medellin – Jose Maria Cordova International Airport
Arriving to: Panama City – Tocumen International Airport
Scheduled departure hour: 16:45
Actual departure hour: 16:42
Scheduled arrival hour: 18:00
Actual arrival hour: 17:45
Aircraft: McDonnel Douglas MD-82
Photo © Juan_BOG
We left our apartment around 1 o'clock for the 45-minute drive to the airport. Weather was apparently going to be on our side that day – they sky over the city was basically cloudless. We arrived at the airport with almost three hours upon our departure. Check-in for our flight was open already, with no more than 10 people waiting in line. Despite being AeroRepublica the ones handling the flight, it is done almost entirely using Copa's image. The check-in, for instance, was done in Copa's counters.
For those of you who may not know, Copa bought AeroRepublica some time ago, and until then, the company only operated domestic flights. Now AeroRepublica flies to Panama City from Medellin and Cartagena, feeding Copa’s hub system in PTY. In our case, Copa flies twice daily to MDE; one mainline, and one by AeroRepublica.
We approached one of the counters to find a very kind, elderly women, wearing the AeroRepublica uniform. She greeted us and then she asked for our tickets and passports. After a few minutes, I started to notice that she was taking longer than usual. She was apparently having problems handling the system, to the point that she had to call the supervisor, a Copa worker, for help. He then came and completed our check-in. I asked if something was wrong, and he replied “Don’t worry, everything is OK. Excuse us for the inconvenience. Some employees are still getting the hang of Copa's systems and procedures”. In a few seconds I was set to go. He gave us boarding passes for our PTY-LAX leg as well, and our luggage would be sent all the way to LAX, without having to pick it up in PTY, just as I expected.
We had lunch afterwards, said goodbye to my parents around 3:30 p.m., and entered the sterile area immediately. Initially it was passport control; the agent asked us where we were headed, and how much time we were going to stay. He quickly checked our US VISAs, stamped our passports, and wished us a nice flight. Then came security checks. The only international departure around that hour was an Avianca 757 to New York JFK at 18:00, so the lines were quick and short. However, a pair of Mexican tourists were having trouble with security people because they were carrying a lot of food, and the agents insisted they had to check through all of it. Our turn was next; we walked though the metal detectors, afterwards they searched through most of our hand luggage, which was rather quick, and then we proceeded to gate 14, which was located immediately after security. Our MD-82 was already there, and was being prepared for our journey.
AeroRepublica staff arrived at the gate around 40 minutes before departure, and they eventually called for boarding at 16:10, from rear to front, as usual. "Extremely early" I thought, given that there were only around 70-80 people on the waiting room. We walked down the jet-bridge and upon entering the aircraft there was one flight attendant welcoming everybody onboard. I entered the plane just to remember the typical tight feel of the MDs, especially the aisle. The aircraft was all-economy configured. My grandmother had her seat on row 7, and I settled down in seat 8A (window to the left side).
First negative thing I noticed: legroom. I am most definitely not a whiner when it comes to legroom, but boy, this was one of the tightest legrooms I have ever experienced. It had to be 29-30 inches. I was stunned because I flew with AeroRepublica a couple of times before this same year and had never noticed that legroom was so bad. Maybe it varies from aircraft to aircraft. Anyway, I was glad I was going to spend only one hour seated there, and not the seven hours or so to LAX.
A nice young girl would eventually seat beside me and we started chatting about how she was nervous of flying, and that she was only headed to Panama City for business. With a half-full aircraft, the main door was closed, and push-back began a couple of minutes before the scheduled departure hour, which was a plus.
No IFE whatsoever on this aircraft, which seemed to be an ex-Alitalia bird because it had titles in Italian all over the place. The lack of IFE is understandable given that AeroRepublica basically flies very short domestic flights within the country. The safety instructions were performed by the flight attendants themselves. They were very pretty and spotless.
We quickly taxied to runway 18, which has been the active for take-offs ever since the TradeWinds 747 suffered the accident at the end of runway 36.
Upon entering the runway I took a shot of the bird. Notice that we had to backtrack the runway given that the last taxiway entrance is partly blocked by the 747. There were drops of water in the window of our MD.
|TradeWinds 747 after accident days before in MDE|
Take-off was powerful even at 7100 feet above sea level. A very typical silent MD during take-off run; we could barely hear the engines whispering. Our aircraft was pretty light, and it spent relatively little runway for take-off. After rotation we began a steep climb that would take us over the Colombian mountains. The plane performed a couple of turns in order to line up with our northwestern heading towards Panama City [we had taken-off towards the south]. I managed to catch a view of the airport just seconds before entering a layer of clouds. Notice the 747 off the end of the runway.
|Minutes after take-off, over-flying the airport on our way to PTY|
We flew through very thick layers of clouds, and almost nothing could be seen below for several minutes. After 20 minutes of flying, the chief flight attendant announced that they would commence onboard service and that they hoped we would enjoy it. I didn’t even imagine they would give out something in this short 1-hour flight. So they did.
They handed out trays for everybody without asking, which I thought was nice. The tray had a sizeable cold sandwich, a small bag of chips, a pair of butter cookies and a small Crunch bar. The sandwich was fine, nothing too spectacular, but I did appreciate they would give out free service on such a short flight. They offered a beverage service afterwards. I chose Sprite, and I was handed out a larger-than-usual plastic glass with ice and the chosen drink.
A few minutes later they announced that we would soon begin our descent to Panama City, and that they would start collecting the trash. I took a shot of our MD cruising over the Pacific Ocean.
|Cruising over the Pacific Ocean, flying between Colombia and Panama|
We quickly started descending towards Panama City. Several Islands could be seen to our left during descent. The flight attendant announced the regular safety precautions for landing, and soon afterwards began mentioning the list of outbound destinations and the gate from where each one of them would be departing. “Los Angeles, gate 14” she said.
The pilot used spoilers during most of the descent until lined up with runway 3R. The approach would bring us over the sea, and to the horizon the skyline of Panama City could be appreciated. Dozens of ships were apparently resting in idle near Panama City.
|On finals to runway 3R in Panama City. Lots of ships below.|
Flying over Panama you could well-see the tropical appearance of nature. Final approach was smooth, and our flight ended with a soft touch-down. The classic loud reverse thrust and lots of brakes were applied in order to quickly abandon the active.
|Reverse thrust screaming as loud as it could|
There were three aircraft in line for landing behind us, all of them were Copa 73Gs. I had forgotten for a while that we were in the middle of Copa's afternoon bank in PTY. Between the dozen or so Copa 737s standing already in the terminal, one sole Avianca MD-83 was taxiing proud for her return flight to Bogota.
We arrived almost 15 minutes ahead of our scheduled arrival hour. We made our way to one of the gates in the middle of both satellites, which are currently being refurbished. The jet-bridges are still not available for use, so we had to de-board using stairs and then onto a bus which would take us to a direct entrance to the terminal. The air was so humid!
The terminal was packed with people walking in all directions and coming from destinations all over the Americas. You could sure hear pretty different accents in there! There are lots of duty-free stores, but I wasn’t too interested since many people say that prices are not worth it, and most, if not all of the brands are found in Medellin anyways.
We decided to head to our gate, which is located in one of the satellites. Our aircraft was already there, being prepared for the flight. In the neighboring gates there was a couple of company 737 headed to Buenos Aires and Miami respectively. People were slowly arriving from feeder flights and were settling down waiting for their outbound flights. Despite being 19:10 our scheduled departure hour, Copa’s gate agents arrived to our gate almost half an hour before boarding.
They had initially assigned us seats apart, so I approached the male Copa agent at the gate and in a helpful mood he immediately put us both in row 8. While waiting for our flight to start, I walked up and down the terminal to get a glimpse of the traffic in PTY. Multiply the following two photos several times and that's all you could see.
|Copa Airlines E-190 being prepared for its next flight [San Juan I believe]|
|73G waiting for its nonstop to Santiago de Chile|
Boarding for the neighboring Miami flight started, and ours followed. At 18:30, almost 40 minutes prior departure, premium Onepass members were invited to board, then business class, and then economy from rear to front as usual.
Tuesday, June 13th, 2006
Airline: Copa Airlines [CM]
Flight number: CM 602
Departing from: Panama City – Tocumen International Airport
Arriving to: Los Angeles International Airport
Scheduled departure hour: 19:10
Actual departure hour: 19:10
Scheduled arrival hour: 23:55
Actual arrival hour: 23:35
Aircraft: Boeing 737-700
Photo © Daniel Umaña
The male flight attendant who greeted us at the entrance was pretty cheerful; I would later find out that this wouldn’t be the case with the rest of them. The interior of this 73G looked very nice, spacious and almost spotless. We quickly reached our seats and settled down to find a quite generous legroom for economy nowadays. We both had aisle seats. There was a small pillow and a blanket in each seat. All seats had individual head-rests. People kept arriving slowly. I noticed two or three people from Bogota because of the accent. There was also a couple that was onboard our previous flight from Medellin. Lots of Asians in this flight.
About 10 minutes prior departure people stopped entering the plane, though the main door still remained open. The flight had a higher load than our previous leg, though it was certainly far from being full. Once everybody had settled-down, the main door was closed, the flight attendants walked down and up the aisle several times to verify the overhead bins, and then they re-accommodated all passengers seated in middle seats so they could be either in aisle or in window. Before pushing-back, they had managed to put everybody in place so that there were no middle seats occupied. Nice touch.
I was pretty satisfied with the whole pre-flight experience. Copa seemed to be extremely efficient and none improvisation could be seen. They definitely seemed to know exactly what they had to do.
Push-back was right on-time. Security instructions were shown in the overhead screens with certain parts being demonstrated by the flight attendants themselves. We taxied slowly, and despite being 3R the active for departures, we were authorized to take-off from runway 25L probably due to our northwestern heading.
Lights were turned-off. After a powerful, yet long take-off roll we were on the air. The lights of Panama City could be seen to the right for several minutes during climb. When we reached our initial cruising altitude the lights were turned on again, and service started.
First, flight attendants started to pass out complimentary headphones. In-flight entertainment consisted in one movie, which I didn’t pay attention to, and several documental programs made by CNN en Español about Latin American culture, produced for Copa Airlines and presented by Colombian journalist Claudia Palacios.
Copa offers dinner onboard its Panama City-Los Angeles flight, and that evening one could choose between chicken and pasta, as usually happens. According to my personal experiences before, chicken tends to be a superior choice over pasta. I was wrong this time.
Appearance was fine, but the actual quality of the food left a lot to be desired, both in taste and in size. Three thin chicken breast slices came wrapped around an almost invisible crepe, accompanied by a small serving of vegetables and a piece of bread. Beverage service followed. Fortunately I was kind of hungry; otherwise I would have left most of it as it really didn’t taste good.
When dinner was finished, flight attendants [two females and one male] came back collecting trash, they turned off the cabin lights again and then they basically vanished for the next four hours. I must say however that they did quickly respond to any call made by passengers. They seemed very professional, a bit too robotic and cold, but overall much better than other ones out there.
It was a totally uneventful flight. No turbulence and nothing to be seen outside the window. I slept a bit, though most of the time I spent skipping between music channels. I really liked the magazine Panorama de las Américas, several interesting articles and significantly more generous in thickness than other magazines I've seen.
Another nice touch was that the captain came on the speaker at least three times during our flight to explain some details about the trip. One and a half hours before scheduled arrival time, cabin lights were turned-on again, people began standing up to get in line to use the restrooms and flight attendants preparing everything for arrival.
A couple of minutes later they passed out snacks, which consisted in a bag of pretzels, a cookie and a small chocolate bar. A second beverage service followed. Then flight attendants distributed immigration and customs forms to enter the United States; I quickly filled mine and my grandmother's and then the crew started checking the cabin for our descent into LA. Finally.
Descent was kind of fast, though the plane leveled at a certain altitude and we kept flying kind of low for several minutes over largely populated areas. Lights below became denser, and we would be flying for another good 20 minutes over Los Angeles in what I presume was a waiting pattern [though not sure if it was necessary because of the arrival near midnight]. Anyway, I would eventually spot downtown Los Angeles to our right, and then it was evident that we were on final approach. Really impressive view of the city and its size from the aircraft. We entered the airport area, glided easily down to one of the southern runways, and touched down softly. Powerful reverse-thrust was immediately applied and plenty of brakes were used to stop quickly and exit the runway. I could see plenty of traffic behind us, but it was mostly cargo. There were also many aircraft parked at the terminals, though airport activity was basically dead at that hour.
We arrived to our gate in terminal 6 almost half an hour before hour scheduled arrival hour, deplaned through the jetway, but were put afterwards in buses that would take us to Tom Bradley International Terminal for immigration and customs. I really appreciated this ride through the apron, spotting plenty of aircraft, but again, mostly dead and quiet waiting for the other day to begin. United 772 and 744, Qantas 744 and many American and Delta jets could be seen.
Immigration was easy and fast. I was actually surprised they only asked us one miserable question “How long are you staying?” after we showed our Colombian Passports. Luggage arrived almost immediately; we exit the dead terminal and met with our relatives who were waiting for us.
In general, I was very satisfied with Copa’s service. Efficiency should be their middle name. They have done a wonderful job building up their hub in Panama City and it's delightfully easy to connect flights with them, especially compared to other US hubs like Miami or Atlanta. AeroRepublica still has to catch up with them [more details in the return trip], and frankly, if Copa is expecting that passengers don’t notice the difference between mainline and AeroRepublica, they have some work to do.
Onboard service was fine, nothing out of this world, but hey, they were the cheapest option out there anyways, and I never felt that I was getting less than what I paid for. In fact, I would have received the same or probably less flying with US carriers who were charging significantly more.
Flight attendants are very professional, not too cheerful, but they always responded quickly to passengers' calls. In this aspect I do believe AeroRepublica has an edge over Copa.
And finally, regarding aircraft, the MD-80s are overall OK, though the amazingly poor legroom caught my attention. The 73Gs are spotless, they obviously have a more modern, spacious cabin, nice legroom and seat recline.
I'll add the return trip in this same thread later on. Comments are logically welcomed and appreciated!
[Edited 2006-07-26 01:28:16]