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Thirty years after Pan Am: The legend lives on


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Pan Am has been in history for 30 years. The last PA436 flight from Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados to Miami, took place on December 4, 1991. It marked the end of the legend of 64 years of world aviation avant-garde, which still retains its glory to this day. Throughout the world, but especially in Berlin, during the Cold War it became synonymous with freedom and hope. “No airline has had such a significant impact on aviation, and no other has been able to offer such services to the public,” said Matthias Hine, a Berlin-based businessman, Pan Am expert and author of a voluminous book on the airline. “Thus was born a myth about the freedom to transport passengers anywhere in the world in a matter of hours and at any time.” Pan Am has been able to do this with its global network. There has never been a similar airline before.

The Pan Am of the continents

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It all started on October 19, 1927 with a borrowed seaplane en route from Florida to Cuba. It is considered the first Pan Am flight, backed by the then 28-year-old businessman Juan Trip, the offspring of a wealthy family from New Jersey. By the time he left in 1968, Tripp had created a unique aviation empire that brought the world closer than any other. His first feat, however, came in November 1935, when a Pan Am Martin M-130 seaplane named the China Clipper managed to cross the Pacific from San Francisco to Manila. The four-wheel-drive flying boat covered 12,875 kilometers in seven days, far exceeding the fastest connection with a ship that then lasted more than two weeks. From 1937 there were connections via the Atlantic with Europe, London and Paris were the first capitals to be connected by air with the New World.

In just 10 years Pan Am had brought the continents much closer. After World War II, Pan Am, albeit a private one, became almost a national US airline for international flights, although competition became increasingly fierce. From January 1946 Pan Am was established as the first transatlantic airline by land. The DC-4 flight from New York to Hum near London lasted 17 hours and 40 minutes with intermediate stops, to Lisbon 21 hours. As early as 1948, Pan Am with its AOA predecessor was represented in post-war Germany as the first airline, long before the Germans were allowed to fly from 1955.

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Juan Trip is perceptive

The decisive factor was the participation of the Americans in the transportation to Berlin. Only the Allies could fly to the divided city, and Pan Am took over from 1950. The four-wheel drive DC-4 flew over airfields in 6 West German cities. “I did not have a pressure room and I often felt bad,” said Utah Kartsburg, a Berliner who was hired as a flight attendant at Pan Am in 1958, just after graduating. “At that time we mainly flew refugees.” At that time the airline had spread as globally as any other, carrying almost 2.6 million passengers. But Juan Tripp wanted more, he wanted to open flights to all walks of life, not just the rich. And Tripp had an unrivaled talent for technical innovation.

In the mid-1950s he thought it was time to start the jet era, and in October 1955 he ordered two competing models from the early jet era: 20 Boeing 707s and 25 Douglas DC-8s. He had a deep friendship with Boeing CEO William Allen. Millions of deals between the two men, who risked the viability of their businesses, were always made with the logic: “You will create and I will buy”, as Trip said to Allen. Without Pan Am’s foresight and financial strength, aircraft construction and aviation would have developed much more slowly. On October 26, 1958, the jet era began with the maiden flight of a Boeing 707 from New York to Paris. The four-engine aircraft, thanks to the push of Pan Am, became a great success. And Pan Am has become the most glamorous airline in the world.

Lockerbie brought downhill

In the 1960s, Juan Trip’s business with the airline flourished with an annual passenger increase of 15%. But he was not left with his hands tied. On April 13, 1966, he made another quantum leap by ordering from Boeing 25 747 aircraft, a model of inconceivable capabilities that carried up to 490 passengers and which was later named the Jumbo Jet. All these developments could not have happened without the courage and vision of Juan Trip. His departure in the 1980s was followed by changes in management and adverse mergers. His company took the downhill and its glamor became a distant memory. Tripe’s goal of making flights accessible to the masses was achieved with the Boeing 747 and the glory days of aviation as a luxury item are finally over. Throughout the 1980s, Pan Am was in dire financial straits.

Then came the Lockerbie bombing of Scotland on December 21, 1988, which killed 270 people. Reservations stopped, on December 4 the airline declared bankruptcy. “There was always hope, but there was always something going on, the fall of Pan Am is still a mystery to me,” said veteran pilot Joe Hasselby, who has since died. In Berlin, other veteran pilots meet twice a year, as is the case in America. “30 years after the bankruptcy, Pan Am’s legacy lives on,” said flight attendant Deborah Statano Gaudiozo of the Pan Am Museum in New York. “It defined passenger aviation and its influence is still visible today.”

DW – Andreas Spet / Irini Anastassopoulou

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