AIRPORT–The return of scheduled flights by Copa Airlines since Hurricane Irma brought more to St. Maarten than additional seats and wider access to the South and Central American market.
The Panama-based airline’s return as of Saturday means the country again has a better air link for patients who need medical treatment in Colombia and it reconnects one of Princess Juliana International Airport’s (PJIA’s) fractured sub-hub links.
Copa Airlines’ two weekly flights on Mondays and Saturdays between Panama and St. Maarten connect the island with 77 destinations in 31 countries in the Americas. The airline hopes to build back up to its pre-Irma level of four flights weekly to St. Maarten in the coming months.
Copa executed two evacuation flights after Irma struck the island on September 6, 2017. After that there was no direct airline between Central America and St. Maarten until Saturday morning.
The air link is not only vital to St. Maarten, but also to surrounding islands. Copa St. Maarten Station Manager Ilonka Heisterkamp said people on and off St. Maarten were eager for the flights’ return. St. Maarten’s hub function cannot be underestimated.
Getting to this point of two flights weekly is the result of much hard work and determination of the local and Panama-based crews, said Copa Regional Manager Caribbean and Mexico Hector Alcantara Martinez.
Tourism Minister Cornelius de Weever said, “Every flight, every passenger is welcomed with open arms” and is a tangible example of the country’s recovery. Copa’s return “means a lot” to St. Maarten in terms of medical assistance and it “opens up markets” in Latin America.
The first scheduled flight on Saturday morning was greeted at the airport with much fanfare – a double water cannon salute by the Airport Fire Department and the greeting of passengers by De Weever, Airport Chief Operations Officer Michel Hyman and other officials.
The pilot and co-pilots of the aircraft also showed their enthusiasm about returning to the destination. After parking, they opened the cockpit windows and vigorously waved the St. Maarten flag and that of Panama.
St. Maarten Tourist Bureau presented each arriving passenger with a welcome bag of St. Maarten items and information.
Copa Airlines has been serving St. Maarten for eight years. The aircraft for the St. Maarten route has 160 seats.