This story has been updated with comments made Monday morning by Delta Chief Financial Officer Paul Jacobson.

The combination of Latin America's burgeoning airline economics and a first-class hub have boosted the fortunes of Copa Airlines (CPA) - Get Report .

The Panamanian carrier recently reported a fourth-quarter unit revenue gain of 10.7% and bested earnings estimates, triggering a one-day gain of 6% in its shares, which are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Shares closed Friday at $106.85 and have risen 18% year to date.

"Latin America is coming back after two really hard years," said Copa CEO Pedro Heilbron in an interview. "The main {problem} had to do with the Brazilian economy, which has recuperated since, and currencies devaluating. That affected traffic and yields.

"Latin American seems to be coming out of that, but we are still very careful," he said.

In the fourth quarter, all three global U.S. carriers saw their best unit revenue gains in Latin America, although none matched Copa. American gained 10.3%, United (UAL) - Get Report gained 7.7% and Delta (DAL) - Get Report gained 5.2%.

On Monday morning, Delta CFO Paul Jacobson called Latin America "the shining star in the network."

Speaking at an investor conference, Jacobson said Delta's gains in the region are being "led in particular by the Brazilian economy." 

Copa's gain followed two years of negative unit revenue numbers. But analysts had mixed reactions to the strong fourth-quarter results.

"The LatAm region is emerging from a recession which could provide further upside earnings," wrote Deutsche Bank analyst Mike Linenberg. In the case of Copa, improvements in unit revenue, load factor and yields "are expected to continue into 2017," he said. He has a buy rating and a target price of $110.

Cowen & Co. analyst Helane Becker has a market perform rating; she worries about capacity growth.

"As a result of this improved performance and weak results elsewhere in the world, particularly the North Atlantic, we are seeing airlines increase capacity growth into the region," Becker wrote. "If this growth continues, we would be cautious about the region as the economies in LatAm remain fragile and the currency environment remains somewhat unsteady."

Heilbron said U.S. carriers are "adding back capacity that was taken out." He noted that Copa's capacity grew just 2% last year. "This year we are guiding to 6% growth, but that's all from {aircraft} utilization and putting back some frequencies, not adding aircraft," he said.

"We're in a very good position to take advantage" of regional growth, he said. "There will always be competition, but our centrally located hub gives us a unique advantage."

Panama City "is right in the middle of the Americas and being right at sea level it allows for smaller narrowbodies to fly longer distances, so we connect a lot of small thin markets {and} we also have a lot of traffic to bigger cities," he said.

Generally, mild weather and a lack of congestion enable very high on-time performance at Tocumen International Airport.

With an 88.75% on-time performance for 2016, Copa ranked second in OAG's list of the most punctual airlines, trailing only Hawaiian, which had an 89.87% on-time performance. (Next three were KLM, Qantas and JAL). In 2015, with 91.02% on time, Copa was first, according to a FlightStats list. In 2014, it had a 90.29% on-time performance.

From Panama City, Copa offers 160 daily departures to 73 cities in 31 countries. It serves 12 U.S. destinations: Boston, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Fa., Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, Tampa and Washington.

Copa is primarily a Boeing 737 airline -- it has 74 Boeing 737s and an order for 71 737 Max jets. It also has 14 Embraer 190s. Heilbron does not foresee flying widebodies. "The only reason I would not say 'never' is because I was taught never to say 'never,'" he said.

Is Copa like Southwest? Yes, "in the sense of having a large Boeing fleet, and a simplified well-focused business model," Heilbron said. "In other ways, we are different: We are a full-service hub and spoke carrier. We distribute {tickets} through agencies and we serve food." Copa's cost per available seat mile excluding fuel is a low 6.4 cents per mile.

A Copa-United partnership has antitrust immunity on international flights. The partnership is a holdover from the days when United predecessor Continental owned 98% of Copa. Copa and United have reciprocal frequent flier programs, extensive codeshares, and maintenance and IT agreements. Both are Star Alliance members. Heilbron was recently elected chairman of Star's chief executive board.

Copa has a big presence in Colombia. Copa Airlines Colombia serves eight Colombian cities from Panama and flies internationally from Bogota. In December, it started Wingo, a low-cost Colombian carrier.

Regarding bidding for South American-based Avianca by Copa, Delta and United, Heilbron would not comment. On the fourth-quarter earnings call, he said, "We would rather have Avianca in a closer alliance with United than with someone else."

Delta CFO Jacobson said Monday that Delta "never publicly confirmed we were in the Avianca process." He said Delta is focused on its partnerships with Gol in Brazil and with AeroMexico.

"AeroMexico is the leading business carrier in the Mexican market," he said. "We believe that is a strong foundational point in the northern part of the region."

One might not guess what consumes Heilbron in his spare time: It is the New York Knicks. Born and raised in Colon, Panama, Heilbron, who is 59, graduated from Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., in 1979, then got an MBA at George Washington University.

In 1975, he became a fan of the Knicks and of star Walt Frazier after his dad took him to a game. Now, he sometimes attends games with his daughter. "I love the Knicks," he said.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.