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