Orlando Airport MCO sees gradual return of international routes

Orlando’s airport was barely able to cling to its international status during the depths of the pandemic’s worldwide hit on air travel in the spring, but the region’s nonstop links to foreign cities are tiptoeing back to life.

Copa Airlines of Panama, one of the earliest foreign carriers to establish service to Orlando 20 years ago, has resumed flights this month. Emerging from a prolonged shutdown, the airline will ramp up from one to four flights a week to Orlando in September and to as many as twice daily later this year. The airline specializes in servicing the Americas with the vast majority of its connections through its home base of Tocumen International Airport in Panama City.

“There is a lot of uncertainty as we are building back and we are learning day by day and week by week,” said Dennis Cary, Copa’s senior vice president for commercial and planning. “The occupancy of our flights, maybe not what we were used to pre-pandemic but certainly better than we had feared.”

Another milestone unfolding for Orlando International Airport is the lifting this week of federal restrictions that had required flights from the more than two-dozen nations of Europe’s open-border Schengen Area, United Kingdom and Brazil to land at one of 15 “funnel” airports in the U.S, a group that did not include Orlando International Airport.

Copa returns to Orlando International Airport after the Panama-based airline was idle for months because of the pandemic.
Copa returns to Orlando International Airport after the Panama-based airline was idle for months because of the pandemic. (Orlando International Airport)

Underscoring the economic stress of being blocked from international flights, airport and regional leaders this summer urged the Department of Homeland Security to add Orlando to the list of 15 airports.

“This will serve as a much-needed economic boost to the job market in Central Florida,” the leaders stated in a letter to the department signed by airport director Phil Brown.

Orlando’s “largest international airline – Virgin Atlantic, along with Lufthansa, British Airways, and Aer Lingus among others are anxious to restart their MCO flight operations,” states the airport letter sent to the Department of Homeland Security.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control announced that the U.S. government would “remove requirements for directing all flights carrying airline passengers arriving from, or recently had a presence in, certain countries to land at one of 15 designated airports.”

The CDC said it was broadening disease-control measures at other airports.

Orlando airport officials said that even though the incoming international flights are no longer restricted to the 15 airports, it’s still up to the U.S. and foreign governments to lift their various travel bans before international travel develops much momentum.

“This is a moving target as far as when countries close and countries open and who is open and who is not,” said Vicki Jaramillo, senior director of marketing and air-service development at Orlando’s airport.

Jaramillo pointed out that while Copa is steadily bringing back flights, the nations of Panama, Costa Rica and Chile are still closed to U.S. citizens and other foreigners. But the largest portion of Copa customers are not from the U.S.

Prior to the pandemic, about a third of passengers on Copa’s Orlando-Panama City flight originated from Orlando.

Of the other two-thirds, about 20 percent came from Brazil, 20 percent from Panama, 10 to 12 percent from Colombia, 8 to 10 percent from Peru and 6 percent from Ecuador, according to Copa.

Many airlines are continuing to further push back their expected restarts of international service, including Florida-based Spirit, which is seeking to return to Latin America destinations, and British Airlines, which is pressing to land in U.S cities, Jaramillo said.

Overall, Orlando International Airport’s daily volume of international service in February before the pandemic struck was between more than 6,000 and nearly 12,000 passengers, and between 50 and 70 flights.

By April, the daily volume had plunged to as few as no flights or a single flight with no passengers.

The airport remained international through the summer by virtue of a combined 22 flights in June via Aeromexico, Volaris and JetBlue to Mexico, and via JetBlue to Jamaica.

In July, according to the airport’s most recent monthly reporting, domestic air traffic was down by 70 percent over July last year and international traffic down by 98.2 percent over the same month last year.

With about 140 flights each month into Orlando before the pandemic, Copa’s service between Orlando and Panama City has been the busiest of any foreign route at Orlando International Airport.

The next busiest was Air Canada’s service to Toronto, which fluctuated at about 100 flights into Orlando each month.

“We were grounded during the pandemic from March through the beginning of August other than a few hundred humanitarian flights,” said Cary, Copa’s senior vice president.

Copa flew to 80 cities in 33 countries of the Americas pre-pandemic. The airline plans to resume more than half of that service by late this year.

In 2000, Copa began service to Orlando; Los Angeles; Cancún, Mexico; and São Paulo, Brazil. At that time Orlando International Airport was struggling to build its offering of nonstop flights to other countries.

Prior to 2000, British Airways, Bahamasair, Virgin Atlantic, AeroMexico, Air Canada were flying to Orlando.

By the start of this year, the number of foreign airlines serving Orlando had multiplied to more than 20, including Aer Lingus, Avianca, Lufthansa, Emirates and Norwegian.

Low-fare U.S. airlines with a high volume of stops in Orlando also have been growing international networks, including Southwest, JetBlue, Spirit and Frontier.

Copa began flying to New York and Miami last month and is expanding to Los Angeles along with Orlando this month. The airline plans to resume service to eight U.S. cities by November and 12 by early next year.

Cary said industry analysts expect that a return to normal will be years away.

“At the low end, people are talking about three years and at the high end five,” Cary said. “In terms of how we are planning our business, that is probably the time frame we are thinking about.”

Copa returns to Orlando International Airport after the Panama-based airline was idle for months because of the pandemic. (Orlando International Airport)

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