The Gateway to South America – A Changing of the Guard

A running joke has long been that the capital of Latin America was not even in Latin America, Miami.  To get from North to South America, more likely than not you went through Miami.  Even flights originating in Central America or the Caribbean destined for South America would often connect through the south Florida hub.

As of 2006, almost half of all connecting passengers destined to South America from the United States found themselves in Miami, and a full quarter of all North American connecting passengers were routed through Miami.

Panama City, through the young Copa hub, was a distant second, yet already doubled power hubs such as DFW, ATL, IAH.  Even the massive Latin American metropolitan center of Mexico City with ten times the population connected less than half the number of passengers to South America.

With a small presence in the U.S., PTY pulled mostly from within Panama, Mexico, Cuba, and Central America.

That was then.

This is now.

Copa has created an efficient monster in Panama City.  Miami has reduced its number of connecting passengers to South America by 1/3, while Panama City has soared.  In fact, in the 12 months ending March 2018, Copa connected nearly as many passengers originating in the U.S. as did Miami.  (Note:  Scales are accurate within each chart but not between the two charts.  Overall connecting traffic has grown by over 70% between North and South America, however the chart shows a percentage distribution, not absolute passenger numbers).

In 2018, Panama City has connected over twice the number of passengers from North to South America, with heavy growth focused on the US, Cuba, Mexico and the Dominican Republic (oddly enough).  Panama City is now the most likely place you will connect on your trip to South America, and then almost certainly on Copa.

How did this happen?

It’s easy to blame Miami for not keeping up with the growth of competing hubs.  While there is probably some truth to that, the growth opportunities for other hubs, PTY in particular, was just too great.  Any growth in the connecting markets was destined to come from other hubs as Miami was already efficiently handling more than their share.

Fort Lauderdale has clearly taken some of Miami’s connecting flow as the LCCs enter the South American market where they were nonexistent in 2006.  But it is the growth of the Latin American hubs that has made the difference.  Aside from PTY, Bogota and Lima have greatly increased their North/South American flow, as Avianca and LATAM have extended beyond their own regional footprint deep into the western portion of the continent, Argentina in particular.

The growth of Copa, with the partnership of the PTY airport remains the greatest change in how passengers move from North to South America;  Truly a feat for the small country of only 4 million.