Revival of an American Icon - 'Clippers' are again flying under the name Pan Am. By Katja Ridderbusch
Pan American World Airlines - Pan Am - is rembered well in Germany. After World War II, the American carrier kept West Germany connected to the rest of the world. After its 1991 bankruptcy, Pan Am is experiencing its third revival, unknown to Germans and even to most Americans.
Pilots and passengers may not believe their eyes these days while taxiing on the runway of Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. Parked far away near the cargo hangars at one of the world's busiest passenger airports is an aged and forlorn Boeing 727 carrying a name and logo long believed dead: Pan Am, written in large blue letters on the airplane's white body, and the familiar blue globe painted on its tail.
It is not a ghost. It is one of seven Boeing 727s owned by "Pan Am Clipper Connection," a regional airline which recently launched three round trips a week between the buzzing business metropolis of Atlanta, Ga. and the casino town of Tunica, Miss.
So Pan Am is back again, although not exactly. Losses, fears of bankruptcy and rumors about corruption, the same problems of the past seem to have been reborn with the name and logo as well. "Pan Am Clipper Connection" is but a distant and faded memory of the world's first truly global airline.
Pan American World Airlines was an American icon, an icon of the Cold War, an icon of pop culture until a terrorist attack forced the management to file bankruptcy in 1991. But the famous name and logo survived.
Pan Am Clipper Connection is the third reincarnation of Pan Am World Airlines. After the collapse in 1991, an investment group purchased the rights to the Pan Am brand. The second Pan Am operated from 1996 to 1998, focusing on low-cost, long-distance flights between major U.S. cities and the Caribbean.
After Pan Am II had to declare bankruptcy in 1998, the brand was sold to Guilford Transportation Industries, a railroad company headed by a Pittsburgh banking dynasty. After five years, Guilford ceased operations and sold Pan Am III to a subsidiary, Boston-Maine Airlines, which launched today's Pan Am Clipper Connection in late 2005.
The new airline operates with two hats. In the north, it serves as a weekday commuter airline offering flights between Boston, Mass. and Trenton, N.J. In the south, it operates as a charter carrier bringing tourists from Orlando, Fl. and Atlanta, Ga. to popular vacation destinations such as Puerto Rico, Cancun, Mexico and Tunica.
Just like the grand old Pan Am, the third resurrection is suffering from major financial problems. Four of its seven Boeing 727 aircraft are grounded due to an ongoing investigation by federal regulators. In 2005, Pan Am Clipper Connection posted losses of $19 million. Despite the rather gloomy outlook, new Pan Am's management keeps spirits up. "To this day, the Pan Am brand draws a lot of attention," a company spokeswoman said.
The glamorous story of the original Pan American World Airlines began in 1927, when aircraft pioneer and entrepreneur Juan Trippe founded the corporation with the backing of powerful financiers William A. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Pan Am initially served as mail transport between Key West, Fl. and the Cuban capital of Havana. In the 1930s, Pan Am launched the first regularly scheduled passenger flights ever. In 1939, Pan Am started a transatlantic service from New York via Lisbon to Marseille.
Pan Am was the first airline, after World War II, to operate with jet aircraft on transatlantic routes, and was one of three airlines to fly over the Atlantic at all. For many years, Pan Am's airplanes, nicknamed "Clippers" after the 19th-century clipper ships, were the top American airline for elegance, style and on-board service in overseas travel.
Pan Am flight crews wore navy-style uniforms and flight attendants were trained by professional actors. To this day, a familiar term used in popular psychology is the "Pan Am Smile" - named after the friendly but somehow robotic greeting smile of Pan Am flight crews.
For almost 40 years, Pan Am flight 001 ruled all westbound air travel with its "round-the-world" service. The flight originated in San Francisco, and then stopped in Honolulu, Hong Kong, Bangkok, Delhi, Beirut, Istanbul, Frankfurt, London and finally New York.
Germany, and in particular its capital Berlin, always had very strong ties with Pan Am because of Cold War history. Due to Berlin's postwar divided status, German airlines were not allowed to land at the city's three airports until the country's reunification in 1990. The three Western allies kept the air traffic between West Berlin and West Germany alive with their national airlines for more than 40 years. For the U.S., this job was done by Pan Am.
The U.S. airline also found its way to Cold War pop culture: Pan Am had guest appearances in several James-Bond-movies, including "Dr. No," "From Russia with Love" and "Live and Let Die." More recently, Pan Am was featured in the Hollywood productions "Catch Me If You Can" and "The Aviator."
Despite its decline, the worldwide name recognition remained strong. Pan Am was almost as well known as Coca-Cola. At the same time, its iconic image also made Pan Am an attractive target for terrorists. In 1988, Pan Am 103 exploded in mid-flight over the town of Lockerbie, Scotland. A bomb had been placed in the cargo hold by Libyan terrorists. All 259 passengers and crew on board the Boeing 747 "Clipper Maid of the Seas" died, as well as 11 people on the ground.
The airline never recovered from the Lockerbie bombing incident. It took three more years before Pan Am declared bankruptcy in 1991. By that time, Pan Am had already sold off its profitable London Heathrow routes to United Airlines. Delta Airlines then purchased the remaining assets, mostly the European routes.
In the long run, none of Pan Am's heirs had much luck. United just recently emerged from a painful restructuring under Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Delta is still in the process of finding its way out of the bankruptcy zone, and a run-down charter airline carries the once glamorous Pan Am logo.
- Katja Ridderbusch is a freelance journalist and writer who lives in Atlanta, Georgia.