Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am

Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am
© 2011 Robert Gandt
351 pages

How does a world-class airline fall so quickly from the heights that its pilots are accidentally locked in the building when it closes its doors for the last time, forced to jump from a fire-exit door onto shrubbery below?   The decline and crash of Pan-American Airlines wasn’t as abrupt as memory has it, as Skygods narrative history demonstrates, but a drift toward failure that was nearly corrected a time or two but never long enough.   Skygods‘ history of Pan-Am uses the stories of its captains, executive, and crew to make personal a proud airline’s fall from glory.

Pan-Am isn’t an airline I ever flew on,  closing as it did when I was six, but as a  brand name I heard about it often enough growing up — and I witnessed the airline’s complete self-confidence in movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey.   That complete self-confidence was part of its early pilot culture,  when a airline created by a Navy buff adopted aspects of navy lingo and dress.  The planes were “Clippers”, and their crews wore smart uniforms, answering to their lord and commander in the air —  the Master of Ocean Flying Boats.  It wasn’t just a name:  Pan-Am specialized in overseas destinations, beginning with a Key West to Havana run, and to serve the undeveloped world by air, it used floatplanes or flying boats.  Pan-Am captains were alpha males later running jet engines, often wrong but never in doubt.    Juan Trippe, the effective creator of Pan-Am and its chief for decades, was certainly confident in his own vision and the airline. He  pushed commercial aviation into the jet age against its reservations, twisting elbows and manipulating one company against another, forcing them to do his bidding.  Trippe got what he wanted — jet airlines that could go faster and over greater distances — but  at a price. The brutal deal-making  clouded Pan-Am’s  reputation,  making it political enemies, and Trippe’s greatest dream, the 747, would bleed the rest of Pan-Am’s life.

Pan-Am had taken on enormous obligations in creating that fleet, but it had enormous assets, too: it wasn’t just an airline, it owned a pricey chain of hotels.   It was an international corporation with an antiquated culture, however; even in the sixties it operated like a small transport firm from the thirties, with such lax accounting measures that no one could tell what lines were profitable or not. When Trippe was dreaming of doubling his capacity with 747s,   flights to Europe on 727s (another Trippe coup) were flying half-empty.   And those “Skygods”, the captains who ruled their ships with an iron hand? They were getting old, with an easy arrogance made more volatile by forgetfulness.  In this period,  eleven new jets, their crews and passengers, were destroyed in spectacular crashes abroad.     Although Pan-Am would reform its approach to command and develop a stellar safety record,, it couldn’t win back political favor: its old monopoly on international routes was slowly pried away, while the old bar on domestic routes was retained.

Although Pan-Am’s profits dwindled into losses year after year, the  downward spiral seemed to be arrested by another CEO, who closed a lot of low-performing lines and put employees on furlough.  The airline began making money again, only to blow it all  in a bidding war  for a southern airline with domestic routes.  The integration of the two airlines was not handled well,  and from then on Pan-Am’s successive directors kept repeating the other’s mistakes:  they’d sell off a performing asset, use the money badly, and come out worse for the wear.    Pan-Am just couldn’t adapt to slug it out in the domestic markets,   and in gutting its international flights to finance the domestic fight, it essentially consumed itself to death.  Outside matters didn’t help, from an oil crunch to an act of very public terrorism that saw Pan-Am Flight 103 smeared across the Scottish countyside. 

I don’t know that any extinct airline enjoys the reputation in death that Pan-Am does, receiving adulation in modern films like Catch Me if You Can and the series Pan-Am.  And then there’s the case of a man who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to recreate a first-class cabin and lounge from a Pan-Am 747 in his garage, then expanded it in a separate building.   Those who remember it — or those who are simply curious about it — will find in Skygods an easy but sad  narrative of the airline’s return to Earth.

CBS apparently did a short clip on the anniversary of Pan-Am’s closure:

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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10 Responses to Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am

  1. Mudpuddle says:

    i've wondered why they went kaput… poor management and bad decisions… i flew pan am a couple of times back in the day; it was okay, but, still, tons of steel up in the air…

  2. Stephen says:

    Although people say air travel was more luxurious then, now it's much easier to book flights, get around, that sort of thing. Flying is still a fun part of the vacation experience for me!

  3. Sarah says:

    Added to my TBR. I have a strange obsession with non-fiction books about airlines and planes and such.

  4. Sarah says:

    I would also agree that it was more luxurious then, though. I usually travel in sweatpants, which is trashy I know, but I want to be comfy. But when we travel with buddy passes (my uncle has been with first Northwest, and then Delta when they bought them out for YEARS), we have to dress nicely, no jeans/sweatpants, etc. It was definitely a different way of traveling in years gone by.

  5. Stephen says:

    @Sarah: I've heard about those buddy passes! Wasn't it United who escorted a couple of young people off for trying to wear just tights on a free pass a few months back? Right after the doctor beatdown, I think.. There are a few books on the airline industry I wanted to read — a history of how they thrived or perished after '70s deregulation, and another about the 9/11 aviation crunch — but they'll have to wait until May.

  6. CyberKitten says:

    I remember the shuttle in 2001…. BEAUTIFUL.

  7. CyberKitten says:

    The Orion III is a fictional passenger spaceplane seen in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is a two-stage space shuttle launched on a reusable winged booster. It is equipped with aerospike rocket engines and jet engines for atmospheric flight. Pan American World Airways operates the Orion III, just as it operates the Aries Ib.

  8. Stephen says:

    Ah! Lost the plot when you said shuttle. I was thinking about Columbia, Endeavour, etc.

  9. Brian Joseph says:

    This sounds so interesting. I always wondered about the demise of Pan Am. I never knew much about it. They were such an icon when I was growing up. I think that I would enjoy this book.

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