Copa Airlines has always intrigued me.
The Panamanian national carrier runs a lean operation solely within the Americas, serving the numerous population centres of North and South America with an efficient route network. Its hub in Panama City serves as the ideal connection point when travelling between the two continents.
Given that nonstop flights tend to attract a significant premium in these markets, Copa can therefore leverage its geographic position as the fulcrum of the Americas to do quite well for itself on purely through-traffic alone.
Want to fly between Orlando and Buenos Aires? Las Vegas and Porto Alegre? Montreal and Lima? Copa’s got you covered. In acting as a significant transport link within the Americas, the airline is essentially an embodiment of its home country. And by allowing passengers to enjoy layovers or stopovers in Panama City, the airline also does an excellent job at promoting Panamanian tourism on the global stage.
When redeeming Aeroplan miles for travel to South America, then, Copa almost always figures among the potential options. Star Alliance’s presence here is very sparse, with Avianca being the only member carrier based in a South American country, so Copa’s expansive reach within the continent, as well as its excellent award availability, make it a very reliable option for using your miles to travel to South America.
Therefore, I was very interested in trying out Copa Airlines business class, since it’s a product that many travellers bound for South America would be flying sooner or later. I primarily reviewed my 7-hour overnight flight from Rio de Janeiro to Panama City, although I would later take a 3-hour flight onwards to Mexico City after a long layover that day. In this article I’ll be focusing on the first flight, but I’ll mention a few details from the second flight that I think are relevant as well.
Copa Airlines operates virtually the very last departure out of Rio de Janeiro every night, so when we boarded the plane at 1am, we were exhausted and ready to doze off as soon as we settled into our seats. We had assigned ourselves Seats 4E and 4F, which were in the last row of business class on the right-hand side.
Copa’s fleet consists mostly of Boeing 737s, which offer a single-aisle business class arrangement with 16 seats across four rows. The seats are forward-facing and do not recline all the way to become a lie-flat bed; instead, they recline backwards by only a few degrees. These are identical to the business class seats that you’d find on domestic flights within Canada or the US – pretty bare-bones stuff.
Taking my seat adjacent to the window, I took in my surroundings within the rather intimate business class cabin. There’s not much to say about the cabin’s looks. The seats are jet-black, and the only splash of colour comes from the seat pillows in bright blue.
A run-of-the-mill business class seat like this doesn’t come with many distinctive features. To start with, there’s no in-flight entertainment screen on the seat-back in front you; instead, the entertainment system is housed within one of the armrests, and can be rotated outwards.
The tray table is kept within the other armrest and folds outwards as well.
Since the seat doesn’t recline much past a 45˚ angle, there’s no need for complex seat controls. You can use the buttons to recline backwards, bring up the legrest, secure the footrest, and control the lumbar support unit.
The legrest makes a small difference towards improving the quality of your sleep (but as I would later find out, it doesn’t come close to making up for the lack of a flat bed). Otherwise, it doesn’t have much use and is best kept in its default “down” position.
Despite the rather basic seat design, Copa Airlines doesn’t skimp on the essentials – there were AC power ports and USB outlets available at each seat, as well as a headphone jack for the entertainment system.
The flight attendant came by to offer us some orange juice as a welcome drink. She also asked us if we intended to be awake for the meal service. This would imply staying up for the “late-night snack” and waking up an hour before landing for breakfast, which was plenty of sleep to sacrifice on a 7-hour overnight journey.
Despite craving some sweet slumber for the duration of the flight, I agreed to try the meal service for the sake of writing a more comprehensive review. Oh, the things I do for you guys! 😉
My breakfast order was taken – I opted for rice pudding over omelette and yogurt over muesli, with orange juice and coffee as my drink choices. Jessica, meanwhile, sensibly declined the offer and went to sleep. Interestingly, there was no menu offered on this flight, which was presumably because it was overnight – I say this because there was a menu on my later, much shorter flight to Mexico City (and based on other reviews, it does seem that most Copa flights do offer menus).
As we waited for takeoff, I unholstered the entertainment system to try to pass the time, but since there was no choice of programming and only one telenovela was being played the whole flight, I ended up putting it away soon after.
Before we began taxiing, the flight attendant also handed out the in-flight amenity kit, and I snapped some pictures once we were in the air. Copa Airlines partnered up with Biomuseo, the Biodiversity Museum in Panama City, to create this amenity kit out of recyclable materials. It contains a dental kit, some hand cream, an eye mask, and a pair of tube socks.
It turns out that I was the only business class passenger who had opted to stay up for the late-night snack, and the flight attendant seemed to take great delight in delivering my food the instant that the seat-belt sign was turned off.
As it turned out, the reward for my dedication was wholly unremarkable, with the cheese bites being the only highlights of an otherwise uninspiring charcuterie plate.
I was pretty eager to get to sleep by this point and so hurriedly polished off the cheese and a few of the meats, opting to save the crackers for later. The late-night snack service therefore concluded when I exchanged my half-eaten plate for a bottle of water. At long last, sleep was beckoning.
These aren’t lie-flat seats, but they’re not even angled-flat either. They’re simply recliners, and nothing more. Thus, the best “bed” you can fashion for yourself is a slightly wonky sleeping surface at a 45˚ angle to the ground, which happens once you’ve fully reclined the seat and raised the legrest as far as they will go.
Needless to say, that doesn’t make for a comfortable night of sleep by any measure, so if you’re flying Copa Airlines business class, I highly recommend booking a daytime flight in order to avoid grappling with this issue (having said that, it’s certainly still miles ahead of sleeping in economy class).
My three hours of sleep were fitful at best, and I didn’t particularly mind to be awakened for my breakfast. I quickly downed the coffee in order to perk myself up, before groggily chipping away at the fruit plate, yogurt, and croissant.
After the fruit plate came the rice pudding, which was by far the best dish I had on this flight. Despite the messy presentation, it was sweet and tasty, and paired well with the second cup of coffee I had ordered.
The sun was just about peeking over the horizon as we began our descent into Panama City Tocumen International Airport. Even two cups of coffee weren’t enough to prevent me from dozing off once again, only to be jolted awake when we touched down on the tarmac.
Something hilarious happened at this moment. After my breakfast tray was cleared away, I had left my iPhone sitting on the armrest between our seats. It sat there all the way until the moment of touchdown, at which point the aircraft’s deceleration caused it to slide off the armrest, under the Row 3 seats in front of us, through the tiny gap between the lifejacket console and the cabin floor, past the Row 2 seats and through the tiny gap there, eventually coming to a stop underneath the lifejacket console of the seats in Row 1.
It took me quite a while to even realize that my phone was missing, and another eternity to figure out what must have happened to it.
By the time the other passengers were standing ready to disembark, I was still on all fours in the empty Row 3, trying to locate my phone. It was then that the Brazilian guy sitting in 2E told me that he had seen a small black object zooming by his feet moments after we touched down, and that helped me figure out that my phone had actually made it all the way to Row 1. After asking to borrow a knife from the galley, I finally managed to retrieve my phone, before happily disembarking and heading into a stuffy Panama City for our long layover.
Copa Airlines’s premium product won’t be blowing your socks off anytime soon. The hard product is subpar for international business class, with recliner seats similar to the domestic premium cabins you’d find in North America, while the food is average at best. If you’re booked on an overnight flight, the limited recline will likely be a nuisance (as it was for me), while a daytime flight will probably be much more pleasant.
Having said that, it’s important to set expectations correctly – Copa’s unique route network, leveraging its Panama City hub as an intermediate point between North America and South America, means that none of its flights are particularly long. For an airline whose flights are about seven hours in duration at most, delivering a cutting-edge business class experience likely isn’t the most worthwhile investment, especially when Copa’s selling point is laser-focused on its excellent connectivity and efficiency across both continents.
So while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Copa’s business class over other products, I do think it’s one of the few good ways to redeem Star Alliance miles to South America, and it certainly fulfills that purpose quite capably indeed.