Pan American World Airways, popularly known as ‘Pan Am’, was the largest and premier United States international air carrier from the late 1920s until its collapse on December 4, 1991. The history of Pan American Airways is inextricably linked to the expansive vision and singular effort of one man – Juan Trippe. An avid flying enthusiast and pilot, Trippe was 28 years old when he founded the airline.
Founded in 1927 as a scheduled air mail and passenger service operating between Key West, Florida and Havana, Cuba, the airline became a major company credited with many innovations that shaped the international airline industry, including the widespread use of jet aircraft, jumbo jets, computerized reservation systems, and a dedicated business class on international flights.
Identified by its blue globe logo and the use of the word “Clipper” in aircraft names and call signs, the airline was a cultural icon of the 20th century and the unofficial flag carrier of the United States. Pan Am was the first U.S. airline to embrace the jet era in passenger aviation, using a combination of Boeing 707 and Douglas DC-8 aircraft. This innovation resulted in Pan Am’s domination of the US passenger aviation market in the 1960s while setting the standards for excellent service. Pan Am also played a key role in shaping the economics and eventual design of a new generation of wide-body jets. By defining requirements for size and passenger capacity, Pan Am influenced the shape of Boeing’s 747, and becoming the first airline to operate the iconic aircraft.
Pan Am’s iconic status, however, made it an attractive target for terrorists. In 1986 Pan Am Flight 73 was hijacked in Pakistan, resulting in the death of 20 passengers and crew and the injury of 120 more. On December 21, 1988, the terrorist bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 above Lockerbie, Scotland, resulted in 270 fatalities. The results of these tragedies caused many travelers to avoid flying with Pan Am as they had begun to associate the airline with danger.
Security concerns, operational costs, the inability to develop a successful US domestic route network, and Operation Desert Storm in 1991 all contributed to Pan Am’s demise. The airline eventually sold off its routes to United Airlines and Delta Airlines.