Panama’s Copa Airlines: Free Cocktails In Coach! And They Might Let Your Kids Fly The Plane

copa airlinesLeave it to the fun-loving Panamanians to know how to show their passengers a damn good time. I had some United miles burning a hole in my pocket this winter and wanted to use them for a trip to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The only routing available for my preferred time window was on Panama’s national airline, Copa Airlines, a Star-Alliance member I’d never heard of before.

If I’m flying solo, I’m willing to board just about any aircraft with a logo and a couple of wings on it, but since this was a family trip I thought I’d do my due diligence and Google Copa before booking the flights. At the risk of coming off like a hopeless xenophobe, I should admit right here that I do not associate Panama with here-take-our-lives-in-your-hands-competence and efficiency.

If I was looking for someone who could get three outs in the ninth inning, I might turn to a Panamanian. But for an airline? I had no idea. But I was impressed to learn that Copa has been around for decades and has crashed just once, and that was way back in 1992. Sure, there was another incident when one of their pilots veered off the runway and wrecked one of their planes, but hey, no one died, so no harm no foul.

I also liked the fact that they have a really pretty girl named Ana who provides nuggets of valuable information on their website’s top ten questions page. For example, in response to the apparently very popular question, “Do you speak Spanish?” Ana assures us that sí, the Panamanian staff does indeed speak Spanish. (Now who would have guessed that?)

But we got off to a less than promising start with Copa at O’hare airport on Valentine’s Day.

“You will have to be very patient with us,” warned a clipboard-carrying Copa staffer who was directing travelers into two lines at their counter. “Our computers are broken, so we are doing everything by hand today.”

We arrived at 6 A.M. for an 8.09 flight and by 6:45 we’d barely moved in the line when we noticed that the young woman was directing several late arriving passengers into their business class line, which had been empty. I ducked out of the coach line and complained that people who arrived after us were getting served before us and the woman apologized, opened up a brand new line just for us and assured us that we would be next. I felt moderately embarrassed by the rock star treatment but I was secretly delighted.

copa airlinesAfter we boarded the plane, I brought my sons, ages 3 and 5, up for a peek in the cockpit and the Copa pilots seemed oddly delighted to meet them. They both doffed their pilot hats, put them on my sons and let them touch a few random buttons before suggesting I go fetch my camera for a few shots. After the photo opp, they suggested I bring the boys back again after the flight was over for a “flight lesson.” Huh?

The aircraft was ice cold and didn’t warm up even an hour into the flight. I’m the kind of person who is always hot, not cold, and I had on a polo shirt and a light jacket and was wrapped to the neck, mummy style, in a Copa blanket but was still freezing. I asked a beautiful Copa stewardess with coffee colored skin and high heels that were like stilts why it was so cold and she looked at me like I was crazy.

“You’re cold? That’s funny because I am perfectly comfortable,” she said with a smile before walking away.

Well, so long as she was comfortable and, let’s face it, so darn cute, that was good enough. A few minutes later, her colleague, a beefy, handsome Panamanian steward in a tight uninform who looked like he would have fit in nicely on Jersey Shore, came by with foil covered plastic tins of enchiladas. For breakfast.

“What’s in the enchiladas?” I asked.

“I have absolutely no idea,” he admitted, seemingly fielding this question for the first time. “Why don’t you try them and find out?”

My wife did just that and reported that they were very edible. (And filled with ham and cheese, let the record show) Around 11 A.M. they came around with a drink cart and I noticed that several passengers- in coach, mind you- were ordering cocktails. I assumed they paid for them and wrote them off as nervous fliers or incorrigible alcoholics.

We arrived on time, and on the way out, the pilots insisted that my sons come back into the cockpit to sit in their seats and horse around. (see video) An hour later, we caught a connecting Copa flight in Panama City bound for San Jose, Costa Rica, and, once again, noticed that quite a few passengers were enjoying cocktails in coach. (Cocktails in Coach- wouldn’t that be a great motto for this or any other airline?)

I didn’t even want one- after having risen at zero-dark thirty, I was shattered but curious. My wife ordered a rum and coke and I asked the stewardess to confirm that it was free.

“Of course it’s free,” she said, as though I’d just asked her a profoundly stupid question.

“And is alcohol ALWAYS free on Copa airline?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “For us, alcohol is always free.”

Now that, my friends, is what I call a damn good airline.

[Photo credits: Dave Seminara and egm tacahopeful on Flickr]