The Pan-Am Experience

I was thumbing through a magazine recently and came across a short article titled, “The Pan Am Experience.”  Next to it was a picture of what appeared to be the internal organs of a glamorous 1970s passenger airplane, complete with smiling flight attendants dressed to the nines.  From the gist of the headline, I gathered that it was an advertisement to eat how you did on Pan Am in the 1970s. 

For only $295 ($355 if you want the fancier upper dining deck) you can board a replica Pan Am 747 and never actually go anywhere.   At the check-in desk, instead of getting strip-searched and herded like cattle, you get a ‘70s boarding pass complete with ticket jacket and carry-on tags.  Using your boarding pass, you now have a chance to enjoy the lounge without having to sign up for the airlines’ outrageously heavy interest Mastercard program.  In the lounge, with drink in hand, you can visit the authentic Pan Am "memorabilia". 

Now, when I was growing up, my father was a graveyard airline mechanic for Pan-Am at San Francisco Airport.  Without implicating my family in the demise and eventual bankruptcy of Pan-Am, I believe it’s okay to mention that at one time or another we lived on much of the Pan Am memorabilia that you will see in your Clipper Club lounge.  Our coats and luggage all featured the logo, having been “borrowed” from the airline.  My childhood art masterpieces were done on the Pan Am computer punch cards of the 1970s. Many of our food items, including the Chateaubriand served on special family occasions, were “leftovers” from Pan Am.  Just seeing the logo for me is like many of you might feel seeing the wallpaper that adorned your childhood home. But back to the tour.

After you peruse the items of my childhood, you will board the Air Hollywood replica of Pan Am’s first Boeing 747.  Having not actually experienced the Air Hollywood version, I can only imagine that you get to board this without the person behind you crashing your heels with his luggage or the woman in front of you taking the last spot in the overhead compartment while yelling into her cell phone. 

Once boarded, your Stewardess (not flight attendant) will be wearing the original tightly fitted uniform and you will be offered another cocktail while soothing music fills the cabin of the fake airplane.  While they perform a safety demonstration, you get to sit back in comfortable, roomy seats, rather than being shoe-horned into the spot between the smelly bible salesman and the extremely large woman who may or may not be a circus performer. Rather than having peanut packets thrown at you, you are served a gourmet four-course meal on fancy China (that may or may not have been used with the Chateaubriand during my special family dinners).  And instead of having plastic cups thrown at you with 6 precise cubes of ice and four exact fingers of cola, you are served your choice of beverage in crystal glasses that may or may not have been my childhood everyday glasses.

During his decade at Pan Am, my father made lifelong friends.  It wasn’t until Dad’s funeral that I learned that some of these friends had only worked with him for a couple of months before moving on from Pan Am, but they never moved on from one another.  There are many stories I cannot share that I learned about Dad during the after-funeral party, and most also featured Pan Am in some way or another.  Maybe.  I'm not implicating anyone.

Pan Am was a pioneer airline, in both its early routes through continents and in its fostering of a family-like atmosphere for the employees.  The Kelly Act of 1925 authorized government mail contracts to private carriers.  As a result, many aircraft owners began air carrier services, including Pan American World Airways in 1927, when it won a contract to deliver mail to and from Cuba and the United States.  By 1930, it expanded to include mail between Mexico and Latin America and the United States. At this same time, air carriers were forced to carry passengers not just cargo to remain competitive.  In 1939, Pan Am was the first United States passenger service to Europe and then provided military transport to Europe, Africa, and Asia.  By the middle of the 1970s, Pan Am had become one of the world’s largest air carriers.  Deregulation, recession, turmoil in world politics, airline airfare wars, and high gas prices, caused Pan Am to lose ground in the mid-1980s.

With their fleet aging and no money to purchase new aircraft, Pan Am was spending too much money on keeping their flights in the air-- over $800 an hour for maintenance costs for every hour an aircraft was in flight.  I'm pretty sure my family didn't borrow enough items to contribute to much of that $800 an hour, but just in case, we GAVE IT ALL BACK. That is what I will say if I'm ever asked.  WE GAVE IT ALL BACK.  Even the Chateaubriand.  

It also should be well noted here that my mechanic father was not earning a cent of this $800 an hour per aircraft, as he was no longer working at Pan Am.  He was in the lay-off program of years before.  But if he had been among the mechanics left, he would have used his Macgyver-like skills to use spit, glue, and duct tape to keep those planes in the air for far less than $800 per hour.  We should all be thankful for that lay-off...  Pan Am filed for bankruptcy in 1991 and, while they tried to reopen in 1997, they had to shut their doors once again when they couldn’t pay their creditors.

While they may not have been the best of business people, I will forever be grateful to Pan Am for my “uncles,” for my winter-wear, and for giving this poor child from a poor family the taste of Chateaubriand, which I found at the time tastes best with just a hint of catsup.


Post a Comment