Before trying Copa Airlines’ brand new direct flight from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to Panama City, I did a little online research on the Copa customer experience perspective. And honestly? It made me nervous.

For every post that raved about the attentiveness of the staff or the food, there were five complaining about that same staff’s rudeness, cancellations with no explanation and inability to get anyone on the phone to fix it, or just fervently beseeching someone to reveal the whereabouts of their luggage.

But no unhappy tweet can replace experiencing a thing for yourself. And after flying roundtrip between BWI and Toucmen International Airport, I can say that Copa — at least this route — is solid. Punctual. Clean. Reasonably priced. Got my luggage from one place to the other. Exceptional French toast. All and all, it’s OK. And with the current frantic state of air travel, OK is excellent.

“The people are nice, they serve food and snacks depending on how long the flight is,” said Rolanda D. Chambers, of Owings Mills’ Golden Voyage Travel, who literally clapped when I told her I was flying Copa. “They’re good.”

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Getting applause from a travel professional was a clue that maybe the five-hour trip to Panama — which began flying from BWI Saturdays, Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays on June 28 — might be better than the reviews of the airline’s overall service would suggest. I had originally planned to fly during the route’s first weekend, but decided to delay a week to give it a fair chance to work out the kinks, and for a less-expensive, nonholiday fare.

On any given day, Copa’s flights are not the least expensive ones between BWI and PTY — a recent search shows a round trip of $764.15 for its Economy Basic fare between July 29 and Aug. 2, alongside comparable flights on American Airlines for $702 and on Delta Air Lines for $755. But Copa offers the only nonstop service between the two cities, and as Chambers and other travel professionals have told me, direct is best at a time of increased travel delays, cancellations and potential missed connections.

A word about Copa’s ticketing tiers: You’ve got Economy Basic, or as I call it, Basic Basic, which like most lowest-priced options, basically gets you on the plane. It’s a nonrefundable fare that charges extra for checked bags, seat selection and changes. So for $40 more each way I upgraded to Economy Classic, which included one checked baggage, seat selection and one free reservation change. (For another $400 or so each way, you can move on up to Economy Full, which included two checked bags and premium seat selection.)

On the day of my flight, I made my way to BWI’s Concourse E, the main international concourse, three hours before my 4:22 p.m. departure (there’s only one flight between Baltimore and Panama City either way each day). I was early and there was nothing to eat on E, so I hoofed it down to D with my carry-on because airlines seem increasingly loopy with checked bags and I wasn’t taking any chances.

When it was finally boarding time, I found it pretty efficient, though we left about 40 minutes late. I made my way to my preferred seat at the very back of the plane because I’m COVID-conscious and like to reduce the number of maskless people who can cough on me. I wound up having my own row when the couple next to me moved to empty seats across the aisle — all the better for me to enjoy Melissa McCarthy’s “Life of the Party” on the old-school seat-back screens and an actual meal. The spaghetti on the way to Panama was pretty good, and the frosted French toast and mixed fruit on the way back to Baltimore was even better.

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The meal from Baltimore to Panama aboard Copa Airlines was spaghetti and a roll. (Leslie Gray Streeter)
French toast and mixed fruit on the flight back to the United States was especially delicious. (Leslie Gray Streeter)

Copa offers the opportunity to upgrade your flight a few days before departure, and on the way back I admit I considered making the minimum bid — approximately $250 — to sit in one of the nicer, bigger seats up front. But I decided to take my chances that I’d luck out with an empty row situation like I had on the way there. No such luck, but I was seated next to a lovely Panamanian woman named Carmen who was coming to visit her aunt in Maryland and who, like me, was a Copa newbie. She hadn’t booked her own flight but thought it was “pretty good.”

What wasn’t good? My seatmate to the front: a boxer dog who literally licked my arm through the space in between the seats. His human mom was already not a fan of mine because I kept pushing away the balled-up jacket she was using as a pillow that kept falling through the space, covering my laptop and hitting me in the arm. It seems to have been an accidental dog lick, the pup was adorable and it only happened once, but when I got up to leave, the woman, her seat companion and the two passengers in front of them all had tiny dogs on their laps. Copa’s official policy is that small dogs and cats are allowed in A CARRIER. I didn’t report it because I just wanted to get off the plane, but do better enforcement, Copa flight attendants.

In a row all to herself, watching Melissa McCarthy in “Life of the Party” kept Leslie Gray Streeter entertained on her Copa Airlines flight. (Leslie Gray Streeter)

Besides the encounter with a dog tongue, my only other complaint was that there is no Wi-Fi. Otherwise, I was pleased with the service: the flight attendant on the way to Panama gave me an extra Coke Zero without asking, and one on the way back cheerfully offered extra juice. Just small human touches that are always appreciated.

I’d definitely fly with Copa again, although I might spring for the good seats the next time — with the bigger seats it might be easier to avoid canine saliva.