Why Denver wanted a flight to Panama

Photo: DIA
An aerial view of the Jeppesen Terminal at Denver International Airport.

Denver Mayor Michael B. Hancock and a 30-person delegation will celebrate the first nonstop United flight from Denver to Panama City on Wednesday -- by flying there.

Among those along for the ride will be representatives from the business, tourism, trade, economic development, hospitality, sports and ski industries. They'll get a tour of the Panama Canal, a reception at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence and meet with the American Chamber of Commerce Panama and the Panama Chamber of Commerce.

The question is, why would a link to such a tiny Central American country be of such great importance to United Airlines, and to Colorado's capital?

"Today, we know that more than 700 people a day travel between Colorado and Central and South America," so the new nonstop route fills an immediate need, said Denver International Airport spokesperson Laura Coale. She also expects the route to support the creation of about 400 new jobs.

The Denver-Panama City route will provide access to more than 180 destinations worldwide through Panama, airport officials say. That includes improved access to almost 40 destinations in Central and South America, and meshes with a larger strategy. Airport director Kim Day identified Panama as a key destination in a 2013 interview with "Colorado Matters".

"We're really focused on Central America, Panama in particular, because that is a nice hub," she said. "We could have a one-stop into South America."

Some estimates show the tourism and trade economic impact from the route to be as much as $72 million annually, according to Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. South America has many emerging economies, which makes the flight to Panama even more important.

"When you look where economies are going to emerge in the world this is one of the continents you want to get into so it’s really exciting for us to have this direct flight and such an easy connection," Brough said. Colorado engineering firms, medical device companies and beverage companies are some of the biggest exporters.

Jayne Buck, vice president of tourism for Visit Denver, says that while South American travelers have been underserved in the past, all nonstop international flights help the whole state of Colorado.

"We're the largest metropolitan area within about 500 miles, so we need the access through the airport for us to be robust and growing," she said.

Buck also predicts the new route will generate interest in Colorado on the part of tourists from Panama.

"They like to get out and explore and hike and go fishing and do all kinds of activities, but they also like that urban [lifestyle] in Panama City," she said. "I think they'll be exploring a lot of great things in Denver."

CPR's Pat Mack contributed reporting to this story.