Pan Am: The trailblazing airline that changed international travel
December 3, 2021
Howard Slutsken, CNN
Every Friday evening, travel industry analyst Henry Harteveldt
mixes a drink in a vintage airline cocktail glass and shares a toast on Twitter to a long-gone carrier.
This week, Harteveldt, founder of San Francisco-based Atmosphere Research Group, will be choosing a specific glass from his extensive collection, one with an airline's iconic logo -- a glass featuring the instantly recognizable blue globe of Pan American World Airways.
It was 30 years ago on December 4, 1991, when Pan Am flew its final flight, after close to 65 years of globe-spanning operations.
And yet, although three decades have passed since the airline declared bankruptcy, the Pan Am brand still seems to resonate through current pop culture.
The Swinging '60s
"We look back, admittedly, through a very filtered view of what travel was like when jets were new at the dawn of the jet age. Long-haul international travel was rare, and it was special," says Harteveldt.
Pan Am was the launch customer for the first US passenger jet, the Boeing 707. In October 1958, the airline's first 707 passenger flight from New York to Paris ushered in the "Jet Set."
Those celebrities, stars and wealthy travelers, dressed in their finest, were often photographed coming down the stairs after a trip on a Pan Am jet.
When The Beatles landed in New York in 1964 for their first US television appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," they stepped off a Pan Am 707 named Clipper Defiance.
As part of the musical "British Invasion" of the time, the group could have been, and perhaps should have been, on a BOAC jet -- British Overseas Airways Corporation, now British Airways -- but they picked Pan Am.
"I think it was an intentional decision, that when the Beatles were coming to the US, they wanted to be seen getting off an airplane that was a US airline," said Harteveldt.
A powerful brand
The airline was often featured in movies of the day, including the earliest of the James Bond franchise, "Dr. No" (1962). The landmark 1968 science fiction film "2001: A Space Odyssey" included a futuristic Pan Am Space Clipper heading to a rotating space station in Earth's orbit.
"Pan Am had 90,000 names on a waiting list to fly to the moon, because the airline symbolized the future of air travel," says Terry O'Reilly, an award-winning ad man who hosts "Under the Influence," a Canadian radio show and podcast about marketing.
"When I've written about Pan Am in my show, for me, the residual brand of Pan Am is glamor. Unlike most other airlines, there was something about Pan Am that was glamorous, and that's what's resonated through the years."
In a somewhat peculiar turn of events, a US railroad company bought the rights to the Pan Am brand in the late 1990s. Pan Am Railways began operations in the country's northeast states in 2006, with royal blue rolling stock adorned with the Pan Am name and logo.
The rights to the brand were spun off and are now held by the Pan American World Airways, Inc. Licensing Program, which works with partners to create newly minted Pan Am products.
"Only certain brands can be resurrected as a licensing property years after their demise. Very few brands would have that kind of lasting impact. It had to be Pan Am because of the glamor aspect of it, and the company knew they could make money by licensing the logo," said O'Reilly.
A global icon
Pan Am started operations in 1927 with passenger and mail flights between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba.
Under the leadership of commercial aviation pioneer Juan Trippe, the airline grew rapidly with a fleet of flying boats, including the elegant Boeing 314 -- the famous Pan Am Clippers.
Pan Am continued to operate during World War II, providing the US government with needed logistical support throughout the world.
Post-war, the airline industry was tightly regulated by the US Civil Aviation Board (CAB) which doled out route allocations and maintained control over airfares.
According to Harteveldt, Trippe was focused on Pan Am's international growth, and "made a bargain with the devil. He accepted a deal with the CAB so that Pan Am would be 'The Chosen Instrument' for the US government, internationally. In exchange, Trippe agreed Pan Am would not pursue US domestic routes."
That deal would come back to haunt the airline years later.
But throughout the 1950s, Pan Am became experts in setting up aviation infrastructure in other countries, both for the airline itself and by providing technical expertise to local airlines.
"Pan Am was a mixture of vision and capabilities, but also they did work closely with the American government in ways that never came to the fore as public knowledge," says Doug Miller of the Pan Am Historical Foundation.
"They were better than most other American companies that worked on the international scene at figuring out how to do things in foreign countries.
It was often said that if you were doing business in another country, the person you should really see after you checked in with the American embassy was the Pan Am station chief, because they really knew what was going on."
Through the 1960s, Pan Am was at the forefront of the airline industry with technical innovations, including the PANAMAC computer-based airline and hotel reservation system.
Like other airlines, Pan Am got caught up in that decade's push towards supersonic passenger travel and showed interest in both the Anglo-French Concorde and Boeing's 2707 SSTs. But with the cancellation of the 2707, and flight restrictions and negative public perception of Concorde, the airline never reached supersonic speeds.
The beginning of the end
However, Juan Trippe saw the potential in Boeing's 747, and the airline was the launch customer and first operator of the world's first wide-body jumbo jet in 1970.
"Pan Am ordered 25 747s, but it became clear that was too many of that airplane. Not Pan Am's fault, there was the oil embargo and the recession and everything in the early 1970s, but Pan Am didn't take enough steps to slow down deliveries of those planes," says Harteveldt.
Airline historians may point to the deregulation of the US airline industry in the late 1970s as a key turning point in the fate of Pan Am. With that change, the airline's competitors could fly to the same international destinations, but without a domestic route structure feeding those flights, Pan Am couldn't compete.
Even after a merger with National Airlines, Pan Am never developed a meaningful domestic network, and the merger only delayed the inevitable outcome for a once-proud airline. Adding injury to insult, the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, shook confidence in the airline.
"Pan Am just didn't evolve as they should have to keep up with the changing industry. The truth is, from the mid-1980s onward, Pan Am was not its glamorous self. Pan Am was an airline that wouldn't or couldn't escape the prison of its past self and didn't know how to make itself relevant in a rapidly changing environment," says Harteveldt.
So, this week, to honor the airline's final flight 30 years ago, Harteveldt will raise a glass emblazoned with the Pan Am globe, filled with an Old Fashioned or a Manhattan or a Martini.
"Pan Am's legacy is eternal, and you need to go with a classic cocktail for an airline as classic as Pan Am."