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Ghosts of Pan Am: chasing the legacy of America's flag carrier

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A lot of attention has been paid to Pan American World Airways lately. Although the iconic airline ceased operations in 1991, renewed interest in the naissance of the jet age spawned a TV show and a number of logo accessories, from handbags to bag tags. The still-recognizable name and blue globe logo of the fallen behemoth remain potent symbols of a time when American optimism and innovation arrived at the four corners of the compass onboard daily Jet Clipper flights. It’s been famously quipped that the sun never set on the British Empire of the first half of the twentieth century; the same could easily be said of the globe-circling Pan Am network in the second.

Although the original airline has not flown for over two decades, there remains a tangible legacy of the company that began in 1927 with a small flying boat and a contract to carry US Mail on the 90 mile international route between Key West, Florida, and Havana, Cuba. Unlike domestic air routes which in the post-deregulation environment can be added and dropped with relatively little fuss, prized international routes are and still regulated by various bilateral agreements; consequently they have a traceable lineage, and many routes operated by US carriers today remain with few changes from the days the aircraft were adorned with the Pan Am globe. Presented here are some of the Pan Am routes as they are flown today by the predecessors of the storied “chosen instrument” for US international air travel.

Western South America. Pan Am service from Miami to Rio de Janeiro (the line was later extended to Buenos Aires) via Cuba, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, Trinidad, and Recife began with Sikorsky S-38 and later S-40 flying boats in 1931. The flights took 44 hours with multiples stops, and were also sold to leisure travelers as 14 or 21 day all-inclusive vacations with overnight stops and lodging in intermediate destinations included. The jet age ushered in nonstop service from Miami and later New York. The routes were flown by Pan Am until they were sold to United Airlines in 1990. United continued the service from New York and Miami for some years, but today the remnants of the original service is operated nonstop from pre-merger United hubs at Chicago O’Hare and Washington Dulles (pre-merger Continental Airlines was awarded its own new route authority to South America late in the 1990s).

Eastern South America. Pan Am service from Miami to Buenos Aires via Havana, Caracas, Cartagena, Lima, and Santiago began in 1929 as Pan American-Grace Airways (shortened to Panagra) in a joint venture between Pan Am and the Grace shipping company. The service operated virtually unchanged until sold to Braniff International in 1968, and later to Eastern Airlines when Braniff failed in 1982. The route authority passed to American Airlines in 1990. Today American serves the same cities West of the Andes that Panagra began in 1929 with nonstop service from Los Angeles, Dallas/Ft. Worth, New York JFK, and Miami.

London Heathrow. London Heathrow was for many years the undisputed jewel in any airline’s international route network. Pan Am service to London began with Boeing 314 flying boats in 1939 and continued after the war in 1946 as the flagship route (and the following year as part of the round-the-world service that continued until the late ‘70s). Bilateral agreements between the United States and United Kingdom limited the number of US carriers at Heathrow to two (the other was Trans World Airlines.) Pan Am sold all route authority at London Heathrow to United in 1990, which included nonstop service to New York JFK, Washington Dulles, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, as well as a token authority from Washington Dulles to Paris. The sale also included authority from Heathrow to a dozen cities in Europe. United continues the original Pan Am service to Heathrow today from Dulles, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Authorities from New York JFK were sold to Delta in 2006, and the Seattle-Heathrow route is not currently served by a US carrier. Service to continental Europe from Heathrow was discontinued after a few years when United’s lack of fifth freedom traffic rights (the ability to sell tickets to passengers not originating in or continuing to the United States) compromised the profitability of the flights.

Transatlantic. In addition to service at London Heathrow, Pan Am had built a considerable nonstop network to Europe from various US gateways. The route to Southern Europe via the Azores began in 1939 and continued to 1941, and was reinstated following the war. London served as the connecting point for Northern and Central Europe during the early years of the Jet Age, and Paris served as the connecting point for Southern Europe and the Middle East. Longer range aircraft allowed Pan Am to introduce more nonstop service to European capitals in addition to a new European hub in Frankfurt. The European routes, including the Frankfurt hub, were sold to Delta in 1991. Although the Frankfurt hub was dismantled during the 1990s, Delta today continues service to nearly all the European cities acquired from Pan Am, operating them the same terminal (the former Pan Am Worldport) at New York JFK.

Transpacific. More than anywhere else in its route network, Pan Am built the Pacific. In 1935 Pan Am chartered a ship filled with aeronautical and building equipment to construct flying boat docks at the then-U.S. territories in Hawai’i, Midway Island, Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippine Islands. At Wake and Midway, which were uninhabited, Pan Am also built passenger hotels. A vessel was also dispatched to construct or upgrade facilities at Nadi, Fiji; Pago Pago, American Samoa; and Papeete, Tahiti to support flying boat service from Honolulu to New Zealand and Australia. The inaugural service from San Francisco to Hong Kong was scheduled at seven days. Intermediate points between Hawai’i and New Zealand and Hawai’i and Manila were later dropped in favor of nonstop service with longer range jets. The entire Pacific Division (with the exception of service between the continental U.S. and Hawai’i) was sold to United in 1985. United continues service to all destinations acquired from Pan Am with many of the same Pan Am flight numbers, with the exception of Auckland and Manila. (Manila service was discontinued by United but regained with the Continental merger. United has announced plans to reinstate Auckland service from Houston).

Whether it takes place onboard a United, Delta, or American Airlines aircraft, the legacy of Pan Am’s international service continues to this day. The United and Delta acquisitions are recent enough that former Pan Am cabin crew might even be assigned to the flights they once donned their Pan Am uniforms to fly (although their ranks are thinning). More so than a glance at a faded timetable or an hour long weekly television drama inspired by the innocent enthusiasm of the nascent Jet Age, the men and women of the modern airlines continue the proud tradition of the Pan Am Clippers to this day.

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