Pan Am: A Dream Takes Flight (Part IV)

Pan Am was the airline that practically invented aviation. It pioneered air navigation and communications, and its list of "firsts" in the industry is awe-inspiring. Known as the "Queen of the Skies," it was the benchmark by which all other airlines were judged.
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At the beginning of this series, I promised to explain why Pan American World Airways employees felt the world was theirs. The answer is simple: Pan Am was more than a mere company. We were a family -- a family that worked and played together all over the globe -- and it was a "world" that the company had surveyed and developed.

Pan Am was the airline that practically invented aviation. It pioneered air navigation and communications, and its list of "firsts" in the industry is awe-inspiring. Known as the "Queen of the Skies," it was the benchmark by which all other airlines were judged.

And for good reason. Pan Am was the first airline to fly to Latin America, the carrier whose famed Clipper flights to Europe and the Pacific were the stuff of romance. It was the first airline to circle the globe. Pan Am's round-the-world Flight 1 (westbound) and Flight 2 (eastbound) were inaugurated just after World War II. Then at the dawn of the jet age, Pan Am flew the first Boeing 707 in 1958. Then came Trippe's "baby," the 747.

But none of these innovations, as impressive as they were, was what made Pan Am different from other companies. The reason it was more than just a mere company has to do with the feeling of family and adventure and loyalty that Pan Am inspired from its very beginning.

To make this more clear, you need to understand how aviation was developed within the United States. For one thing, most people don't realize that within our borders, the domestic airlines had the advantage of having their airports and safety systems provided for them by the U.S. Department of Commerce. These airlines didn't have the responsibility of building -- and paying for -- all the survey and construction work needed to service airports.

In contrast, Pan Am flew into the world's most backward and dangerous facilities, and had to pay out of its own pocket to obtain the landing rights. As to foreign airlines, these were all subsidized by their respective governments and didn't need to make a profit. Not so for Pan Am.

The story of the Trippe/Lindbergh expedition in 1929 as told in the first three blogs in this series, is just one of hundreds of fascinating accounts of how Juan Trippe virtually single-handedly opened up the modern world to commercial flight. He developed a mind-boggling route structure that covered the entire globe -- 85 countries in all. Trippe, reasoning that America could have the prestige in the air that Britain for a century had retained on the seas, envisioned Pan American World Airways as a government-controlled monopoly and an instrument of national policy. Pan Am's world lay outside of the United States. So how did he accomplish this? First, he would negotiate exclusive landing rights in foreign lands with princes, potentates, dictators, prime ministers, and pashas, most often in secrecy behind closed doors. This was where Trippe's genius was astounding; nobody could out-negotiate him.

Then, after Trippe had secured the necessary agreements with foreign governments, it was time for the company -- at breakneck speed -- to develop these new destinations. Pan Am did all the survey work necessary, constructed airfields, built radio and weather stations, safety systems, provided passenger accommodations, designed new aircraft to fly long distances, and negotiated rates with the postal department to carry airmail.

An important point is that all of this was paid for out of Pan Am's pocket at great cost to the company and at times at significant risk to the lives of Pan Am employees. After all, these outposts were often among the most dangerous and uncivilized areas.

This was how Pan Am's world was built -- and what a world it was! It included remote areas of the globe, in wild tropical lands and blue island-studded seas. It was Trippe who envisioned that "stepping stones" would have to be built across the South Pacific for the future flying boats to reach Asia.

It was Trippe who chartered mammoth merchant ships in San Francisco to carry people, supplies, and even topsoil to create a chain of fully functioning colonies across the atolls of the Pacific. Two such islands were Midway and Wake, which were crucial to the U.S. victory in the Pacific during World War II. All told, at that time, Pan Am built airfields in fifteen countries and carried troops, spies, supplies, and Franklin Roosevelt himself.

Even the airline terminology and uniforms that we all take for granted had its roots in Pan Am. As a boy, Trippe had traveled to Europe, and had been fascinated by the romance of shipboard life; his ambition now became to run Pan American as a kind of nautical airline. He named his flying boats Clippers, aircraft speed was measured in knots, pilots were called captains, co-pilots became first officers, while pursers and stewards worked in the cabin. When boarding the flying boats, crews dressed in naval-style double-breasted uniforms with officer's caps, "marched up the ramp, two abreast, led, of course, by the captain." * In part, this was done as a way of counteracting the prevailing view of pilots in the 1920's and 1930's as flaky, free-spirited barnstormers. Pan Am pilots were forbidden to be seen in uniform either drinking alcohol or smoking in public.

Throughout these years, Trippe appears to have had a sense that the world -- the globe -- was his. He was often photographed standing before his antique standing globe in his office. Legend has it that he used to stretch string between two points and then measure the string, translating inches into a flying boat's hours in the air. And from Trippe's sense of power, omnipotence, and invincibility came the feeling within the company that Pan Am and its employees also "owned" the world. And what other company was in a position to hand over the world to its employees?

Trippe was a self-appointed ambassador to the world, and by extension, Pan Am employees saw themselves as U.S. ambassadors as well. We all took that responsibility very seriously. To the world today, this attitude of entitlement might seem strangely naïve and arrogant, but it came from a grand history of exploration and discovery, and solid accomplishments that changed the world forever. No wonder Pan Am employees basked in the company's reflected glory and felt valued as part of "Pan Am's World."

People often ask, "Well, if Pan Am was so wonderful, why did it go out of business?" There are many complicated and interconnected reasons for its demise, including terrorism, deregulation, and politics. Not to mention bad management, fuel prices, the introduction of the 747s that saturated the market, and the inability of Pan Am to obtain domestic routes while "domestic" airlines were awarded international routes. Lastly, to be frank, Pan Am's own legend and way of doing business, worked against adapting to a radically changed airline industry. As we'll see, some of these issues affected me more personally than others.

From its beginnings in 1927, Juan Trippe ruled Pan Am with an iron fist. It was a patriarchy, as was typical for that era in American business, and Trippe operated the company as a strictly one-man show that received little attention within the United States. We employees felt the same way a family does when there is a strong father figure: our Daddy is the strongest Daddy of all! As long as Trippe was head of the company, the employees felt secure within the patriarchal structure of the company. (See Counting My People)

Ironically, many Americans have never heard Juan Trippe's name, but to the rest of the world, his presence was legendary. Pan Am was considered by non-Americans to be one of America's national treasures. Trippe dodged revolutions and flattered dictators, naming airplanes after despots like Juan Peron, but he never believed in paying bribes, as was common in the world outside of the U.S. Later, to its detriment, Pan Am also didn't believe in paying money to fund U.S. political campaigns.

As the airline industry began to change, the management within Pan Am seemed incapable of making the necessary changes. For example, since its inception, it was understood that Pan Am should only have to contend with one other major competitor on any particular segment of the world -- TWA in the Atlantic, Northwest in the Pacific, and Braniff in Latin America.

Suddenly, under the presidency of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the route awards became strictly political. Members of the Civil Aeronautics Board were now political appointees, and these were the people who made the route decisions. While Pan Am was consistently denied domestic routes, its foreign routes -- which, remember, were all we had -- were handed over to domestic airlines who supported the various political candidates: "Contributions flowed like honey from airline treasuries to candidates' coffers." *

As author Bob Gandt wrote, "In the Pan Am Building, there was a wringing of hands and a feeling of moral outrage. Campaign contributions? Buying what they had already earned? Neither Pan American the corporation nor its officers or directors were conspicuous contributors to political campaigns. Pan American was founded in an old-fashioned, Boy Scoutish sense of its own correctness... and [this] was unthinkable!"* Over time, Trippe's methods had alienated many, and Pan Am became an airline without a country, as well as a political orphan.

A friend of mine talks about how this felt for us: " I remember landing in Hong Kong and seeing a United 747 pulled up to the gate. Our crew just stared at the United aircraft, dumbfounded. We were shaken, disorientated. While shopping, we ran into a bunch of United flight attendants shopping at one of our shops! They were (gasp) buying 'our' Pan Am Pearls! We all said that it was not unlike what we imagined the Indians watching the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock thought. 'Who are these strangers invading our land?'"

The stable airline industry that we had all known began to crumble. Pan Am management felt forced to make the disastrous decision to buy National Airlines in order to get domestic routes, just before deregulation came along and made that unnecessary. Corporate raiders like Carl Icahn (TWA) and union busters like Frank Lorenzo (Eastern) destroyed two wonderful airlines, and the industry seemed to be in free fall. Nowadays, the airline industry itself is the butt of jokes of late-night comics, who use the miserable flying conditions as fodder for endless material.

Pan Am, the company, was not considered within its own country to be "too big to fail," and despite the extreme loyalty of its employees, it was not deemed "too special to fail." The most interesting outcome of this is that while Pan Am the company went out of business, Pan Am the family continues to thrive.

Pan Am, as the slogan goes, is "Gone But Not Forgotten." The company as parent died, but the family endures; the siblings continue to forge meaningful connections with each other all over the world -- finding creative ways, as families do, to project themselves unendingly into the future. Pan Amer's (and their children) are keeping alive the group memories through books and quarterly publications and philanthropic organizations. Most important of all, there are constant reunions, cruises, and travel opportunities, which serve to keep the family united, and doing what they do best: exploring the world together.

I believe that Pan Am's greatest attribute has always been its ability to inspire the love and undying loyalty of its employees. This kind of emotional success would not be relevant to a mere company, and I don't think it exists today. Pan Am encouraged the concept of the company as family, and a successful family is one that's beloved even after a death. At the risk of being redundant, I emphasize the concept of family because I plan to write a future blog about the end of our world.

And if you ever have chance to talk to a former employee, prepare yourself for a nostalgic journey back to the "good old days," a time when America itself was at its zenith, and working for Pan Am felt like the best job in the world.

* Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am, Robert Gandt

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