Pan Am is credited with several innovations that shaped the international airline industry including all-jet fleets, launch of jumbo jets and introduction of computerised reservation systems
Pan American World Airways commonly known as Pan Am, was the principal international airline of the United States (US) for much of the 20th century. Strangely enough, its slogan “America’s Airline to the World” rang true, because the carrier met with success mainly overseas rather than in the domestic market. At peak strength in 1968, Pan Am had just 226 aircraft – a puny fleet compared to today’s behemoths like American Airlines (956 aircraft) and Delta Air Lines (879 aircraft). Even IndiGo has over 250 airliners. Yet Pan Am linked destinations in 86 countries on all continents except Antarctica.
Pan Am came into being when Juan Trippe merged three tiny airlines to fulfil a vital mail delivery contract from the US Postal Service. It commenced operations on October 19, 1927, as a scheduled air mail and passenger service operating between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. Trippe was a shrewd and politically-savvy businessman and over the next few years, Pan Am purchased a number of ailing and defunct airlines in Central and South America. He also negotiated with postal officials across the region to win several lucrative airmail contracts. His flair for public relations was displayed when he hired Charles Lindbergh as a Pan Am consultant. Lindbergh had become world famous when he made the first solo nonstop flight between New York and Paris in May 1927.
Pan Am expanded rapidly into South America using Consolidated Commodore and Sikorsky S-38 flying boats. But Trippe had an eye on the Pacific, despite its immense challenges. Pan Am had to survey the world’s longest oceanic air route and build seaplane ports and hotels on remote Pacific islands. It also contracted with Boeing to design and develop the Boeing 314 Clipper flying boats that were big and powerful enough to transport heavy payloads across the mighty Pacific. In 1936, Pan Am inaugurated the first transpacific flights between San Francisco and Manila with its famous China Clipper. This was followed just three years later with the first transatlantic flights between New York City and Lisbon using the Yankee Clipper. Pan Am thus became the first airline with scheduled transatlantic mail and passenger services. It acquired a reputation for rigorously trained flight crews, accurate over-water navigation, safe seaplane operations and skilled maintenance.
Although the advent of the Second World War put brakes on its growth, in 1942, Pan Am became the first airline to complete a round-the-world flight. And in 1947 it ushered in the world’s first scheduled round-the-world flight from New York to New York Eastbound. It was now perhaps the leading international air carrier, a position it held for the next 30 years or so. In 1955, hoping to open up international markets and lower airfares, Pan Am committed to purchasing 20 Boeing 707 and 25 Douglas DC-8 passenger jets and launched the first B707 commercial flight on October 26, 1958. The B707 thus became the world’s first commercially successful jet airliner. Just a year later came round-the-world jet service.
Pan Am is credited with several innovations that shaped the international airline industry including all-jet fleets, launch of jumbo jets and introduction of computerised reservation systems. It was also a founding member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Most airlines of the period were wholly or partly government-owned, but Pan Am, though privately owned, was the unofficial overseas flag carrier of the US. It was also a cultural icon of the 20th century. Even in an era renowned for elegant service, dashing pilots and adventurous air travel – when the term “cattle class” was unknown, Pan Am stood out. Thanks to its flashy advertising campaigns, its soft-power reach and brand recall were arguably greater than any other airline in history.
In the 1960s, with traffic surging worldwide, Juan Trippe persuaded Boeing to produce a high-capacity, long-haul jet and the Boeing 747 emerged. On January 22, 1970, the first Pan Am B747 with passengers took off from New York and headed for Europe. However, the B747 itself became a major reason for Pan Am’s decline and eventual demise. High fuel prices in the 1970s due to the Arab-Israeli wars and the emerging terrorist threat, crippled the industry. There was no way the huge 747’s could attract sufficient travellers.
Pan Am’s woes intensified with the demise of Juan Trippe in 1981. After Trippe no management was able to turn a profit. The deathblow was probably struck on December 21, 1988, when Pan Am Flight 103 a B747 on a scheduled flight from Frankfurt to Detroit was destroyed by a bomb, leaving a total of 270 killed. Unfortunately, in public mind, the tragedy seemed like a bad omen for Pan Am. Although the carrier made valiant efforts to recover, it was ultimately forced to cease flying operations on December 4, 1991. A great airline had gone into oblivion.