The beginning of what could arguably called the world’s most important airline was anything but glamourous. A small seaplane, chartered at the last minute, carried some mail from Key West, FL to Havana, Cuba, thus rescuing a coveted government contract for which a scrappy young man named Juan Terry Trippe had fought hard.
What grew from that was a globe-spanning company, employing thousands of people, connecting hundreds of cities on every continent, actually INTRODUCING air service to much of the world. For years, the Pan Am brand and logo was on a par with the likes of Coca-Cola in terms of worldwide recognition, and represented adventure, prestige and glamour.
The Worldport terminal at New York’s JFK Airport was, when completed, the largest airline terminal in the world.
This is the initial 1950’s phase; a large wedge-shaped building behind it, with rooftop parking, came later.
Pan Am built its own chain of top-notch hotels, helped develop airports, and helped numerous other airlines, including Mexicana, AVENSA in Venezuela, Panagra (Pan American Grace Airways) in South America, and Ariana in Afghanistan.
With the Martin flying boat, the Boeing 314 Clipper the 377 Stratocruiser, the DC-4, the DC-7, the 707 and the 747, Pan Am was consistently among the first, if not THE first airline to operate a new type, often gambling the store on the success of a new plane.
Pan Am brought the Beatles to New York, the troops to war and back, and the food to Berlin.
It all changed one night in late December, 1988. That night, a tiny bomb, inside a cassette player, inside a suitcase aboard flight PA0103 en-route from London-Heathrow to New York-Kennedy, exploded. Pieces of the plane, a Boeing 747 named Maid of the Sea, fell onto the Scottish town of Lockerbie, killing 259 people on the plane and 11 people on the ground.
It was the beginning of the end. Pan Am was already in financial trouble and had been for years. The fuel crisis, the recession, the deregulation of the airline industry, and some say plain old bad management (particularly the merger with National Airlines) all contributed to an already precarious financial situation. The bad press associated with the tragedy at Lockerbie, and the fear of terrorism in general, caused transatlantic passengers to steer towards other carriers.
Pan Am had responded by selling assets: it’s Intercontinental Hotel chain is now owned by Bass Hotels, its transpacific routes went to United in 1985 as did its London service in 1991, and finally, the lion’s share: its remaining transatlantic service, its New York hub, and its east coast shuttle, went to Delta in August 1991. Delta had promised additional funding to keep alive a much smaller Pan Am based in Miami, flying only to South America and the Caribbean, but abruptly changed its mind.
On 4th December, 1991, a 727 named Clipper Goodwill, operated by Captain Mark Pyle, flew from Barbados back to Miami and into history.
Many of Pan Am’s people still work for Delta, who currently operate at the old Worldport, however they recently announced plans to demolish it (another demolition story). Ironically, the Port Authority announced similar plans for the old National Sundrome Terminal across the airport, now the home of jetBlue Airways. In the wake of September 11, however, this was delayed indefinitely.