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The Rise and Fall of Pan Am


Pan American World Airways was seen as the United State’s unofficial flag carrier, as of its well earned reputation and fame. It was a luxury airline that celebrities flew, it had a modern fleet with highly trained flight attendants. Pan Am, in one year alone carried 11 million passengers worldwide across more than 85 countries. It was the pioneer of modern aviation. They deemed themselves ‘the world’s most experienced airline’. It seemed like the most attractive airline for passengers to fly, but on December 4th 1991, it was shut down.

-Image Credit: Wikipedia- (A Pan American Clipper)-

-The Rise-

Pan American was founded by two US Air Force Majors, Henry Arnold and Carl Spaatz in March 1927 as an air mail service flying from Key West Florida to Havana, Cuba and it was the first scheduled international flight from the USA. In 1928, aviation visionary Juan Trippe bought the airline as a commercial airline where it only flew from Florida to Havana. By the early 1930s, Pan Am was flying in most of South America, it used a fleet of flying boats, which they named ‘Clippers’. Since Pan American flew seaplanes, the pilots wore Navy Captain’s uniforms, this would continue until it went bust. Pan Am was the first airline to fly across the world, the first to fly across the Pacific Ocean, they were an airline that set many records. 

-Pan Am’s Golden Era-

-Image credit: Wikipedia commons (A Pan Am 747)-

In 1958, Pan Am struck gold, the world famous aircraft manufacturing company, Boeing had produced the first American jet engine commercial aircraft. The first 707 flight was operated by Pan American, flying from New York to Paris in just eight hours. Pan Am ordered a total of a whopping one thousand and ten aircraft! These aircraft could fly non stop across long haul destinations which allowed Pan American to access popular destinations like London, Rome and Paris. All of a sudden people in the US were yearning to fly these modern airliners. At that time, Pan American made it seem like something the middle class could only dream of. A multi-lingual cabin crew, delicious gourmet meals being served like steak and even caviar, wide and comfortable seats and a modern fleet. The airline then introduced economy class, so anyone could fly, not just the rich and famous. Pan American’s profit and fame spiked incredibly. In 1970 alone, they carried eleven million passengers over twenty billion miles! Pan American World Airways deemed themselves as the world’s ‘most experienced airline’. They flew to every continent (excluding Antarctica) and left other airlines in their dust. Thinking that air travel would only become more popular, Pan American invested $500 million dollars in the introduction of the Boeing 747 and became its launch customer, the world’s first two storey passenger jetliner; this would be a mistake that collapsed the company.

-The Fall of Pan Am-

A few weeks after their investment, the USA and other countries were faced with skyrocketing oil prices, which had increased by 400%! This hit Pan Am harder than other airlines, as they had long haul flights and the largest fleet at that time. Meaning that they needed more fuel than others to keep operations smooth. This caused tickets to be priced higher, meaning less demand for travel, Pan American planes were now half empty flying. Between 1970 and 1976, Pan Am lost around $360 million dollars and was over $1 billion dollars in debt. Pan American was so desperate, and they started proposing mergers with rival airlines like United and American. Pan Am agreed on purchasing a domestic airline called National Airlines. This was not a good idea, as National’s aircraft and airports were different, which meant Pan Am staff had to re-train. After the purchase for one year, Pan Am lost around $19 million USD. 

-Bankrupt and Desperate-

-Image credit: CNN politics (The remains of Pan Am flight 103)-

Pan American, now in a desperate situation, sold its iconic and enormous Manhattan Head office for $400 million USD. Still the crippled airline continued to struggle, in 1982, it lost $485 million USD. They traded out their hotel chain, and sold their entire Pacific routes to United Airlines but Pan American still had a global reputation for being the USA’s unofficial flag carrier. However, this reputation was quickly destroyed when it suffered a large terrorist attack over the skies of Scotland. On the 21st of December 1988, Pan Am flight 103 took off from London Heathrow. A bomb was placed on board and had been disguised as a cassette tape, and had exploded in the cargo hold. This killed all two hundred and fifty nine occupants on board. The 747 was blown out of the sky, the aircraft instantly disintegrated and the wreckage fell down on a small Scotish village called Lockerbie. Eleven citizens from Lockerbie were also killed. A Libiyan Intelligence officer was caught as the culprit for the atrocious bombing, he died later in prison of prostate cancer. Pan American World Airways were held accountable for not having adequate security measures. In Pan Am’s defense, this was none of their fault, as many other airlines had the same measures. The Lockerbie bombing costed Pan Am more than $350 million USD to pay off, it proved to be the final blow to the once glorious airline. In December, 1991, Pan Am filed for bankruptcy.

-The Final Straw-

After a bidding war, Delta Airlines, the world’s largest airline bought the majority of Pan Am, for $1.3 billion USD. Acquiring its European routes, 45 aircraft, its mini-hub in Frankfurt, Germany and its flagship World Port terminal at JFK New York Airport. After Delta realised that Pan Am was losing more than $3 million USD a day, it stopped buying out the airline. A phone call was made to Pan Am’s head office on December 4th 1991, the message was, ‘Shut it down’. It broke people’s hearts, not just the airline employees but the people who had known it and flown it. Many attempts at re-starting the airline had failed. The Pan Am legacy lives on, despite the airline being grounded, people have created films based on Pan Am, there are plenty of Pan American themed bags and merchandise being sold today.

Pan American World Airways was truly a game changer in modern Aviation.


Business Insider, Business Insider Youtube, Wikipedia, Wikipedia Commons

Cover image: Wikipedia,

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