The Story Of Pan American World Airways

Pan American World Airways is known as a symbol of the historic days of aviation. While the airline was the largest international carrier in the United States until its demise in 1991, it was a founding member of the IATA. At its peak the airline also set two around the world records, both using the B747. The airline was fairly old when it ceased operations due to bankruptcy. Founded in 1927, the airline would be 91 had it survived to the present day. Instead, it ceased operations in 1991 at 64 years old. The Pan Am name lives on, however, and has now been adopted by a private rail transport company.

Pan Am
Pan Am’s economy class on the original B747 looks far more luxurious than today’s standards.

Humble Origins

Pan Am was originally incorporated is Pan American Airlines on 14th March 1927. The airline was founded as a shell company meaning it had no assets or employees, just a name and a bank account. Having raised $250,000 in start-up capital, the airline commenced operations on 19th of October that same year with a Fairchild FC-2 floatplane.

pan am
Pan Am commenced operations in 1927 with a leased Fairchild FC-2 aircraft.

Pan Am went on to increase its network by accepting new government airmail contracts. In the 1930s, the airline began offering passenger flights further afield with newer floatplanes known as clippers. In 1937, Pan Am secured contracts to commence transatlantic flights.

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Jet Operations

Fast forward about 20 years, and Pan Am starts to operate jet aircraft. This marked the start of a close relationship with US aircraft manufacturer Boeing. In fact, in 1955, Pan Am placed an order for 20 Boeing 707 aircraft, becoming the aircraft’s launch customer. In 1958 Pan Am began operating flights from New York to Paris with a refuelling stop in Canada.

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A Pan Am 707
Pan Am was the launch customer for the B707 aircraft, placing an order for 20 of the aircraft in 1955.

In 1966, 11 years after their first B707 order, Pan Am became the launch customer for the Boeing 747 aircraft. The airline placed an order worth $525 million (approximately $4 billion in today’s money) for the aircraft. The order was actually finalised during a fishing trip that the CEOs of Boeing and Pan Am took.

Pan Am
Boeing President and Bill Allen and Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe (right) celebrate the launch of the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” in 1968. The longtime friends sealed the deal on selling the aeroplanes to Pan Am with a handshake while on a fishing trip. Photo: Boeing

Eventual Downturn

Despite a number of highly successful years throughout the 1970’s, the airline eventually had to come to an end. Pan Am, having once called itself “The World’s Most Experienced Airline”, eventually filed for bankruptcy protection in January 1991. Due to rising fuel costs, as well as an inability to operate domestic routes the airline was starting to run at a loss. The airline also suffered from several public relations hits in 1988. This was the year that saw a Pan Am B747 crash in Lockerbie, sparking a $300 million lawsuit, as well as an additional fine from the FAA for 19 security failings.

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Delta claimed that Pan Am was losing around $3 million per day of operation in the later months of 1991. Requiring $25 million just to keep flying for another week, Pan Am was able to convince a bankruptcy judge that they were close to making a deal regarding continued operations with TWA on the 3rd December. As such the airline opened for business as usual on 4th of December, however, was shut down within an hour. Around 7,500 employees instantly lost their jobs.

Pan Am 727
The last commercial Pan Am flight operated between Bridgetown and Barbados using a B727 aircraft.

Although several airlines have tried to revive the Pan Am brand over the years, ultimately none have been successful. Today Pan Am’s legacy lives on as one of the largest names in aviation history.

Do you remember flying with Pan Am? Let us know your experiences below!

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John Williams

Of course, your report has many truths to it but also some falsehoods. I was a pilot there at the end and was one of the thousands that lost our jobs. After months of Pilot union employee roadshow’s where they showed each airline what their operation looked like with and without Pan Am, Delta”s Ron Allen accepted the chance to take Delta out of the minor international status into a real global powerhouse they are today. Unfortunately for all Delta would not take the whole of Pan Am’s route structure and would only take the NY-Washington-Boston shuttle, and the Trans… Read more »

miranda lopez

i am a 82 years argentine women. grow up with the idea that pan american airline represented the marvelous us country. my father flew from bsas, argentine, to london in one of the first commercial flights after second ww., which i asumed was a pan american airplane. pan american took me to different parts of the world. every thing about the airline was presented in a wonderful film which ended with the last pan american flight landing in miami where the fire tracks of the airport waited for the airplane with a water arch. very touching. where can that film… Read more »

Charles W. Strange

My dad passed away two weeks ago at 91 years old. He worked for PanAm pretty much his whole adult life. The story of PanAm is one that is near and dear to me and my two siblings. Having grown up on suburban Long Island my dad was at first a flight engineer in the early years (Late 50s-Early 60s-Idlewild Airport/JFK) and then a pilot flying the B707. Eventually he moved up to the B747 and the B747SP flying long haul nonstop flights mostly to the middle east. Just before the closure of “the company” as he called it he… Read more »

Sallie Ralph Horton

My father was one of the original pilots for Pan American. He started in 1933. He was one of the group who were called the 90 day wonders. He was the pilot of clipper that was sunk by the Japanese in 1941. I still have the new paper clipping of him leading his crew to the clipper on its fatefull flight to Hong Kong. He was able to save one. Plane and escape with his crew to China. I was lucky to have made several trips with him as a sterwadess in the 60’s. He once laughed and said the… Read more »