Panama  is dotted with airstrips served by a network of small commercial prop planes and jets. The longest flights take a little over an hour (not including interim stops). There are several flights a day along some popular routes.
Note that the planes are essentially air taxis that often make several stops, and not always in the order you expect. Planes to Kuna Yala  often go island-hopping down the archipelago, landing at several airstrips. Make sure to get off in the right place.
Panama City  has the country’s main domestic airport, Aeropuerto Marcos A. Gelabert, in the Albrook neighborhood a short drive from downtown. Most taxi drivers won’t know it by name: Ask to go to the Aeropuerto de Albrook. Note: Some old maps still show the domestic airport in Punta Paitilla, but the airport was moved to its current location in 1999.)
Most flights originate from and end at this airport, though Bocas del Toro  and David  have a couple of flights to other destinations, and it’s occasionally possible to fly between islands in Kuna Yala (San Blas Islands). There are few other point-to-point flights; travelers nearly always have to go through Albrook on the way to somewhere else.
Panama’s domestic carriers are not really set up for complicated itineraries. It’s usually best to think of Panama City as your flight hub and plan trips that begin and end there.
Also, beware of flying on holidays. Flight schedules automatically revert to a Sunday schedule on these days, but this is not always accounted for in the airline’s reservation system. Passengers have actually arrived at the airport to learn they hold a ticket to a flight that doesn’t exist. If you fly on a holiday be sure to confirm with a live person that your flight isn’t fictitious. To be ultra safe, don’t book a holiday flight that isn’t also listed for a Sunday.
There are two regular domestic carriers: Aeroperlas and Air Panama. The latter is the current incarnation of an airline that has gone by other names in the past.
Aeroperlas (tel. 315-7500, www.aeroperlas.com ) is the older and somewhat larger of the airlines.
Frequent fliers grumble that its flights often run late. On the other hand, I’ve had all-day waits for Aeroperlas flights, too.
Aeroperlas has been around since 1970. According to the Aviation Safety Network, one of its planes crashed on the way to Puerto Obaldía in 2000, killing the 10 people onboard. Another plane overshot a runway that year, damaging the plane; there were no fatalities. In 2004, an Aeroperlas plane was forced to make an emergency landing; again, no fatalities. That same year Aeroperlas became affiliated with TACA, an international airline. It is now part of TACA Regional, a network of Central American domestic airlines, and the Aviation Safety Network has recorded no incidents on Aeroperlas since 2004.
According to the same source, an Air Panama plane overshot the airstrip in Bocas del Toro in 2006. The plane sustained substantial damage but there were no fatalities. In 2007 one of its flights “sank” on takeoff from Albrook and hit the runway; again, there was substantial damage but no fatalities.
In other words, flying within Panama is hardly risk-free. Passengers have traditionally complained about questionable maintenance, aging aircraft, deteriorating runways, and a casual attitude toward air safety. I’ve had white-knuckle flights on a variety of domestic flights over the years, and friends have had some truly terrifying rides. On the other hand, the views are spectacular and the flights don’t last long.
Also, these pilots fly constantly and, at least from my lay perspective, often have impressive skills. Flying is quite likely the safest way to get around, given the hazards of traveling by road and sea. Given a choice, I prefer to fly Aeroperlas, but this is purely a gut feeling.
The baggage weight limit on domestic flights is 25 pounds (about 12 kilograms). Note that this is total weight, including both checked luggage and carry-ons. Do not try to slip by with more; planes are sometimes dangerously overloaded. Passengers are sometimes also asked to report their own body weight. If anything, err on the side of exaggerating your weight.
Domestic airline fares are regulated by the government. Standard fares are the same regardless of airline or season. They tend to go up only very slowly from year to year, though the recent rise in fuel prices is exerting unusual upward pressure. But in 2010, the most expensive one-way domestic fare was still just over US$100.
The round-trip fare is always double the one-way fare. There are usually discounts for young children.
Try to make reservations at least several days in advance, and reconfirm the reservation 72 hours before the flight. Be at the airport at least an hour before the scheduled departure time.