Remembering Pan Am

By | September 25, 2011
Airline to the World

Image by Telstar Logistics via Flickr

On Sunday, September 26th, a new show begins, Pan Am, which will use the legendary airline as it was in the 60s as a backdrop.

Pan Am, or Pan American World Airways, ceased to exist as an airline on December 4, 1991. The spirit of Pan Am was the legendary Juan Trippe, who guided the course of commercial aviation. He was involved in pushing the development of many iconic commercial aircraft, including the Boeing 707 and 747.

Everything we tend to remember about Pan Am was iconic. From its early years, where its flying boats flew around the around, to the later developments. Pan Am operated the first regularly scheduled around the world service in 1947, Pan Am Flight 1, originating in San Francisco with stops including Honolulu, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Manila, Kolkata, Delhi, Istanbul, Frankfurt, London, and New York.

In our hometown of New York, Pan Am was King. It constructed a large office building in Manhattan(now the MetLife building).

At Kennedy Airport, its home was the Pan Am Worldport(now occupied by Delta and scheduled for demolition). The Worldport was notable for its large overhanging roof, designed to allow passengers disembarking via stairs without getting wet.

After the departure of Juan Trippe, the airline’s fortunes suffered. Hampered by regulation, mismanagement, and government indifference, the airline faltered, and began to sell off its assets piece by piece. The airline was in serious trouble by the time Pan Am flight 103 exploded over Scotland in 1989, the victim of a terrorist attack. The financial problems and the serious slump in bookings were followed by another slump the next year, when the Gulf War began.

Pan Am declared bankruptcy in January of 1991, and Delta Air Lines purchased its assets, and helped Pan Am stay alive as a small airline serving the Caribbean, and Central and South America from Miami. By December, Delta cut off its final scheduled payment to Pan Am. The airline ceased operation, the third major airline to shut down in 1991, after Eastern and Midway.

That is a short summary of an airline that lives on in our imagination. It harkens back to the days when air travel was an adventure, full of excitement. When those who worked the skies were objects of envy. The sense of wonder in air travel is gone for the majority of travelers.

We haven’t yet seen Pan Am(the show), and it, from reports, does have some inaccuracies. But if it shows a new generation even a portion of some of the magic of the time and place it is fictionalizing, it will win approval in our books.