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Airlines, Argentina, Avianca Airlines, Brazil, Chile, Copa Airlines, Pet Travel, South America, Star Alliance, United Airlines, Uruguay

Denver nonstop to Panama means 1-stop to South America

From USA Today:
United Airlines to add Denver-Panama City nonstop

This would have been great news for me in 2012, when I did a few flights between Colorado and Latin America.  To Uruguay in my case,  where I now live.  I took United’s Star Alliance and Mileage Plus partner Copa on one of those flights, starting with a United connecting flight to a Copa Airlines international gateway. But had to fly to Washington Dulles (IAD) to connect to Copa.

three side-by-side shots - Aerial view of hub showing relatively small size, a line of Copa 737s at gates, and a night view of the airport

Copa’s Hub of the Americas

From Panama, Copa Airlines has nonstop flights to many cities in South America, even to under-served Uruguay at our Montevideo International Airport (MVD). (Posted edited to expand information, add some links and images, after initial posting from WordPress’ inadequate mobile app.)

Now if you’re anywhere in the Western USA you have a single connection to this region, other than the flight to Denver if you aren’t within ground transportation distance. Since Denver (DEN is the airport code, locals call it DIA) is still a significant hub for United, especially for Colorado, the Southwest, the Inter-Mountain West, the Plains States, and the Northwest, it’s only 2 changes to the Southern Cone heading all the way to Santiago, Chile (SCL), Buenos Aires, Argentina (EZE), here to Uruguay, or the southern business and resort capitals of Brazil (Sao Paolo GRU or Rio de Janeiro GIG, arguably both in the Southern Cone or close enough.

Granted that flight to Panama out of Denver to Copa’s “Hub of the Americas” is on United, which has gone downhill dreadfully in service quality and even minimal amenities following their botched merger with takeover by Continental, but there’s something to be said for a single connection at at a super-easy connecting point. Panama International (PTY) is fully walkable, quickly. Modern and well equipped with shops and restaurants. Zero friction – no customs, no immigration, not even international transit security when connecting. Walk off the Jetway at your arrival gate,  walk over to your departure gate.

By the way, “no transit security” does not mean it is insecure, anymore than connecting at Miami or Charlotte or Chicago without going through security means it is insecure. It means that the airport, security authorities, the airlines, and the countries to and from which flights operate, have concluded that the security at each end of the journey is up to international standards. That “no transit security” is for flights leaving the US (or any other country), connecting in Panama, and leaving on a flight to any country other than USA. For flights to the USA, just as in any other international departure on the foreign-to-US leg, there is all sorts of nonsensical “Security Theater” ordered by the US TSA.

But on the outbound, it’s a breeze. Me and my cat made it in under an hour, with enough time even to set up a mini-litterbox for him and then for him to charm the nearby passengers. Yes, Copa allows pets in-cabin, if they fit under the seat in a flexible softside carrier. Cat or small dog. My cat was 13 at the time and I knew he would have a rough time in the luggage hold on other airlines, plus being in-cabin meant no temperature nor seasonal restrictions. He had a good year with us here in Uruguay after that flight, before passing on to the Rainbow Bridge. I don’t think we would have had that time together if he’d been shuffled through cargo/baggage handling at his age.

Important – if you are taking a cat or small dog to South America on Copa, you cannot use this Denver flight, even if sold as a Copa codeshare. Nor any other United flight nonstop to Panama. United Airlines allows small in-cabin pets domestically in the USA, but does not on international flights. We flew United from Denver to Washington, so that we could get on an actual Copa flight leaving the USA. At the time the Denver – Panama flight didn’t exist, but a trip through Houston would have been quicker. However, United itself operates the Houston-Panama flight. In most cases, except for Chicago, Washington, and LA, if it’s a United hub, United operates and codeshares for Copa on the flight to Panama. Makes a big difference for pet travel. You’ll want to be on Copa itself from Las Vegas, Los Angeles (LAX), Chicago (ORD, make sure it’s operated by Copa because both they and UA fly it), NYC-JFK (EWR Newark is UA-operated), Washington Dulles, Boston (BOS), Miami (MIA), Orlando (MCO), or their new flight from Ft. Lauderdale (FLL).

The other reason to use Copa rather than United on the international leg may be baggage fees – United takes the most aggressive approach allowed under the US DOT changes to the IATA baggage rules, basing even international travel on the “first check-in carrier” which is them. A Copa ticketed flight with a Copa flight number on the United connection to the Copa gateway will get you Copa’s more generous baggage allowance. Also the food is better and the drinks are free on actual Copa flights. But if you are in or around Denver, the convenience of this new Denver to Panama nonstop, compared to hopping mid-con West to LA or East to IAD/MIA/BOS/ORD is probably worth it.  Certainly anything that helps build up Denver as an international gateway city is a good thing in my book.

Remember, as a partner in Mileage Plus, the Copa flights are bookable with United Mileage Plus miles. In fact, Mileage Plus is the “native” program of Copa. You can earn United/Copa Mileage Plus miles on paid tickets, and Copa flights count towards the minimum annual spend requirement now needed by US residents to earn Premier (elite) status and its resultant perks. Although flights on other Star Alliance airlines do count for the Premier Qualifying Miles for status, only flights on United or Copa count towards the spending requirement (unless they were ticketed on other Star airlines by United or Copa). Everyone, US or not, has to fly 4 paid flights on United or Copa to earn Premier status, no matter how may Premier Qualifying Miles they earned that year on other Star Alliance carriers.

Elite or not,  as a Star member, these United and Copa flights can be used to earn in the programs of the other 25 or so airlines and should at least occasionally be redeemable with miles/kilometers/points from any of them. For example,  I no longer participate in United/Copa Mileage Plus, instead using Avianca’s LifeMiles program as my Star Alliance Frequent Flyer Program. I can earn LifeMiles on these United and Copa flights, and have redeemed LifeMiles for United flights, also seeing options that included Copa. Lufthansa, Air Canada, Air New Zealand, ANA, THAI, other *A program members can “earn and burn” on this new Denver-Panama flight and its connections at PTY to more of Latin America and the Caribbean too. Though for Canadians, or for that matter Europeans too, I’d recommend connecting to Copa’s own flight at Toronto Pearson International (YYZ) rather than deal the USA’s lack of international transit, required electronic permission to visit even from Visa Waiver countries, stupidly futile shoe carnival and liquid carnival, and general TSA and US Customs & Immigration attitude. But Western Canadians might find this useful too, and Denver TSA and C&I are pretty reasonable, as Homeland Security goes these days.

More info about the connections, destinations, and Denver’s slow growth as a true international gateway beyond just adjacent Canada and Mexico, in the USA Today article:


About Mark Mercer

Expat aging sometime-ski-bum former corporate tool. Currently living in the beachside aging resort town of Atlántida in Uruguay. Sometimes skiing and teaching in Breckenridge, Colorado, USA. Location and velocity cannot be simultaneously observed.



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