Flight Review: Copa Airlines Boeing 737 Business Class (Santiago-Panama City-Washington, DC)

Taryn and I recently booked business award flights to/from Santiago, Chile over an extended holiday weekend.  I previously wrote about how pleasantly surprised we were with American Airlines, both the short domestic flight from DC to Miami then the overnight flight to Santiago.  I always hear how European or Asian airlines are head and shoulders above any of the U.S.-based carriers, but it’s clear American Airlines is putting out an excellent product to compete.

For our return flights from Chile, we booked with Copa Airlines, Panama’s national airline and a Star Alliance partner.  Award availability on Copa Airlines is generally WIDE OPEN, which made flying over a holiday weekend much easier.

However, the drawback is that Copa Airlines doesn’t offer lie-flat seats or as luxurious of a business class experience as most other major airlines.  We understood that, so we went in with low expectations.

But little did we know, we should have kept our expectations even lower.  The Copa Airlines experience was so disappointing that I wish we would have saved the miles and flew in economy class instead. 👎

Like I said, Copa Airlines is known for a mediocre business class seat.  Copa Airlines flights are relatively short (since Panama is located in the middle of the Western Hemisphere), so the there’s little point in investing in fancy seats for 5-6 hour fights.

Here are their updated business class seats:

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 11.10.28 PM
Copa Airlines business class seats.  Not lie flat, but still comfortable.

Not bad, but nothing like our American Airlines flights to Santiago.  When booking our flights, we were ok with that.  There’s still ample legroom and enough recline to catch some decent sleep.  Our flight left at 3:00am, so we figured we’d be exhausted anyway.

And we absolutely were.  The airport was pretty bare when we arrived, so we walked right up to the Copa Airlines counter.  Since we bought a bottle of wine during our Chilean winery tour, we had checked our bags.

We quickly made it through security and arrived at our gate about 30 minutes before boarding.  We were running on about four hours of sleep, so we really looked forward to passing out on the plane.

We were among the first to board and took the mandatory business class selfie.

3:00am plane selfie!

As you can seat, the seats are nothing special, though there is plenty of legroom.  The entertainment system and tray table are tucked away in the center armrest, so there’s only a seatback pocket with literature in front of us.

Plenty of leg room.  The in-flight entertainment system and tray table are in the armrest.

Each business class seat also had a small amenity kit that came in a pouch with an indigenous Panamanian design.

Copa Airlines business class amenity kit
Copa Airlines business class amenity kit

Inside the amenity kit was a small lotion, chapstick, toothbrush/toothpaste, an eye mask, and socks.  Fairly basic, but for a short flight, a completely adequate little perk.  I was a little surprised the kit didn’t come with earplugs, especially as I noticed two babies in business class.  Luckily, we had earplugs from a previous amenity kit handy.

Contents of the amenity kit.  For a short(er) flight, it was adequate.

The flight attendant let us know that breakfast would be served prior to landing in Panama City, which allowed us to sleep as soon as the plane was airborne.  You didn’t have to tell us twice, and both Taryn and I kicked out our legrest and reclined the seat as soon as we could.  They weren’t lie-flat seats, but it was decent.  For some reason, I thought the toe rest at the end of the legrest was super helpful.  Not nearly as comfortable as other sleeps in business class, but we knew what we signed up for.

After about five hours of rest (hard to call it real “sleep” even though we were super tired), the flight attendant woke up the business class cabin and served breakfast.  It’s hard to mess up breakfast, and Copa Airlines didn’t let me down here.

Breakfast came with fruit, a croissant, yogurt, orange juice, coffee, and the main dish. Taryn opted for the French toast, while I chose the omelette and bacon.  We had a relatively early dinner the night before, so the standard breakfast hit the spot.

Copa Airlines business class breakfast #1 (Taryn)
Copa Airlines business class breakfast #1 (Jameson)

Overall, the flight was ok.  We attempted to sleep most of the time since we departed in the middle of the night, and while the seats weren’t exactly designed for sleeping, again we knew what we were getting into.  I just wish that same could have been said for the next flight…

We arrived on time in Panama City, Panama, and had a short layover before boarding our flight home to Washington, DC.

Another perfectly timed connection

Like many international flights to the United States, we had to go through an extra security checkpoint in order to reach our departure gate.  Not out of the ordinary, but I was a little annoyed that the security agent told me that my fingernail clippers weren’t allowed on the flight unless I broke off the swinging metal nail file part that nobody ever uses.  I’ve seriously flown with those nail clippers for years without any issues.  But ok, Panamanian security lady.  You win.

We were expecting to fly on the same type of Boeing 737-800 on both of our Copa Airlines flights.  Both flights were about the same distance (to Panama about six and half hours, and to DC about five hours), and my assumption was also that they’d want to fly a nicer business product to the DC market.

I’ll let you try to find what’s missing.  Here’s a stock picture of the cabin we flew to DC.

Screen Shot 2018-10-13 at 11.14.40 PM.png
Copa Airlines’ OTHER business class seats

Looks basically the same right?  Here’s a picture of my seat.

Business class seat on the flight from Panama City to Washington, DC

Notice anything different from our first flight?  There’s no personal in-flight entertainment screen and no footrest.  While it was also a Boeing 737-800, the plane was a downgraded version with an even skimpier business class.  Even in business class, the only entertainment option was with shared overhead monitors that played a show with kids playing practical jokes on random people walking by and ads for various things in Panama.

Screen Shot 2018-10-30 at 6.03.57 AM.png
Not my typical choice for inflight entertainment. 

Needless to say, I was very disappointed.  I strategize and save my credit card points to splurge on an experience I wouldn’t otherwise pay for, but instead I’m left to read and reread the inflight magazine for the five hour flight back to DC. 👎

I was also bitter because we didn’t need to watch any entertainment for our last flight since we were sleeping the whole time.  But now that we were actually awake, it was no longer available.  Thanks, Copa Airlines. 😡

At least Copa Airlines still serves business class passengers a meal on the flight.  It was another round of breakfast (which was appropriate given the time), and the flight attendant supplied menus to each business class passenger.


Nothing too fancy, but like I said, it’s hard to mess up breakfast.

I always try to order the local beer/wine/liquor whenever I travel, and noticed the airline offered a Panamanian rum called Abuelo.  It was 10:00am by the time we were airborne and the flight attendant asked for drink orders.  But at that point, I needed a stiff drink to hold me over until our arrival in DC, so I asked the flight attendant for a Abuelo rum and Coke with breakfast.  Not my typical choice, but I’ll take whatever semblance of a “luxurious” experience I could get with Copa Airlines at that point.

After telling my order, the flight attendant gave me an emphatic eye roll. 🙄 I get it; it’s not even noon and some dude is ordering a drink with breakfast.  But just roll with it.

The meal was very similar to the last flight’s breakfast.  Though I’d probably say the omelette was better than the pancakes.

Copa Airlines business class breakfast #2
Copa Airlines business class breakfast #2

After the meal, I had about three more hours to burn before landing in DC.  I could have really used another serving of Panamanian rum, but the flight attendant wasn’t the friendliest and didn’t make many rounds through the cabin after the breakfast service.  Taryn and I scrolled through our pictures from the trip, attempted to sleep, and half-watched the lame TV show on the overhead monitor with kids playing practical jokes on random people.  Compared to even the previous Copa Airlines flight, our experience was very disappointing.

The cherry on top was our arrival into DC.  We never check bags, but we *had* to check our bag to bring home a bottle of Chilean wine from the trip (#priorities).  With other airlines, business class passengers’ bags are given priority when offloading at the airport, to the point where the bags are are often waiting at the baggage carousel after we make it through customs.  We breezed through the Dulles airport’s “mobile lounges” and were among the first people in line at the queue for Global Entry passengers (thanks, Chase Sapphire Reserve!).

We were making great time and couldn’t wait to get home…but then we waited 30 more minutes for our suitcase at baggage claim, just like all the rest of the airplane.  Yes, it’s a tad petty.  But of all the things Copa Airlines fell short on, this was the final reminder that their business class experience just isn’t worth it.

Am I bitter?  Yes, but not because the service or experience was that bad.  I’m more bitter because the business class flights from Chile on Copa Airlines cost the same amount as business class flights from DC to Europe, which provide a much better overall experience.  So I’m kicking myself for spending 120k United miles on Copa Airlines rather than lie-flat seats with Swiss/Austrian/Lufthansa to Europe.

So lesson learned: keep your expectations for Copa Airlines low, and save those miles for other, better redemptions instead!

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