Pan American: The History of America's 'Chosen Instrument' for Overseas Air Transport
By Asif Siddiqi, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
In the history of American commercial aviation, there is no airline
more influential, important, and better known than Pan American Airways.
It was not the first American passenger airline, nor did it ever meet with
much success in the domestic market, but Pan Am (as it was more commonly
known), represented a new adventurous image of the United States to the
world. When filmmaker Stanley Kubrick produced his landmark vision of the
future in the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” he envisioned Pan Am
as the space carrier that would take men and women regularly into space.
Pan Am's history is inseparable from the life and career of Juan Trippe,
the company's founder and guiding visionary for five decades. Trippe, a
former navy pilot, had shown early interest in passenger aviation with an
aborted attempt to start a charter service for wealthy socialites in New
England in the early 1920s. Within a few years, Trippe's primary focus,
like many other entrepreneurs, shifted to the Caribbean and Latin America.
With the help of financiers such as Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and
William A. Rockefeller, Trippe formed the Aviation Corporation of America
on June 2, 1927, to offer air services into the Caribbean.
Trippe had competition from two other companies. One, the Atlantic,
Gulf, and Caribbean Airways, formed on October 11, 1927, was headed by
Richard Hoyt, a New York broker. The second had been founded by several
army officers including Major Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, who would head
the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. Concerned that a German-run
airline that operated in Colombia would expand, Arnold formed an airline
called Pan American Airways Incorporated on March 14, 1927.
Each of these three airlines had assets that the others found
attractive. While Pan Am held the contract to deliver mail to Cuba, it had
no planes, no money, and no landing rights. Hoyt's company, on the other
hand, was financially in a good position, while the Aviation Corporation
had landing rights into Havana. Trippe and Hoyt muscled in on a share of
Pan Am by offering their assets. Trippe, in fact, provided Pan Am with its
first airplane, a Fairchild FC-2 floatplane. On October 19, 1927, Pan Am
flew its first flight by delivering mail from Key West, Florida, to
Havana. Regularly scheduled service began nine days later.
N532PA - a Pan Am
747-SP (Clipper Constitution) on its inaugural
flight from LAX to London's Heathrow (LHR) April
Image courtesy of AirNikon.
Find more of his photos at Airliners.net
The U.S. government strongly supported a mail service between North and
South America. Congress passed the Foreign Air Mail Act on March 8, 1928,
to regulate such international service, and later that month, the
postmaster general advertised bids for a wide-ranging network of mail
routes all across Latin America and the Caribbean. The Act provided
impetus for the three companies to unite. Under Trippe's firm guiding
hand, Atlantic, Pan American, and the Aviation Corporation united on June
23, 1928, forming the new Aviation Corporation of the Americas. Hoyt
served as chairman of the new company. Trippe's group at the time held 40
percent stock in the new holding company. A new Pan American Airways
Incorporated was set up as the main operating subsidiary of the new
corporation. Having made sure that Pan Am had both the U.S. mail contract
and landing rights in Cuba from the country's president, Trippe enjoyed
crucial advantages in a cutthroat market.
The U.S. government looked very favorably at Pan Am, and viewed it as
its “chosen instrument” for foreign policy by using Pan Am to
facilitate economic expansion into Latin America and the Caribbean. The
U.S. government, in fact, awarded Pan Am every foreign airmail route for
which bids were invited. These included flights to Havana, Cuba; San Juan,
Puerto Rico; Nassau in the Bahamas; Mexico City; and Santiago, Chile.
To a large degree, Pan Am's expansion was helped by provisions of the
Foreign Air Mail Act. In accordance with the wishes of the administration
of President Calvin Coolidge (and in particular, its Secretary of
Commerce, Herbert Hoover), the Act provided that only airlines capable of
operating on a scale and manner that would project the dignity of the
United States in Latin America would be granted the right to carry
international mail. Second, contracts would only be given to companies
that had been invited for operations by the countries of Latin America. In
both cases, Juan Trippe made sure that Pan Am had no competition. He
aggressively pursued friendly relations with most countries in Latin
America and the Caribbean and often personally met with foreign leaders.
Trippe was also the kind of entrepreneur who emphasized elegance and
grandeur in operating his airline. Trippe also invited famous aviator
Charles Lindbergh to serve as a technical advisor to Pan Am.
The airline inaugurated its first passenger flight on January 9, 1929,
from Miami to San Juan by way of Belize and Managua. The 2,000-mile
(3,219-kilometer) journey lasted about 56 hours, including two overnight
Having established a Caribbean mail network, Pan Am began to slowly
acquire several other key airlines that had tried to compete with Pan Am
in the area. These included the West Indian Aerial Express (acquired in
December 1928) and the Compañia Mexicana de Aviación (CMA), a
Mexican-American airline (acquired in January 1929). Trippe's ultimate
target in the early 1930s was Buenos Aires in Argentina, the largest city
in the southern hemisphere. Pan Am, however, faced stiff resistance from
the Grace shipping company. Eventually, the two companies reached a
compromise and on January 25, 1929, formed Pan American-Grace Airways,
Inc. (PANAGRA), with each side contributing 50 percent of the capital.
Another company, the New York, Rio, and Buenos Aires Line (NYRBA) was less
lucky and completely buckled under pressure from Pan Am, which had the
important support of the U.S. Post Office Department. In September 1930,
Pan Am finally brought out all of NYRBA's assets, thus becoming the most
important player in the Latin American market.
Pan Am's heyday was in the 1930s when it operated its famous Clipper
Ships service—an ocean-wide network with a fleet of 25 flying boats that
crisscrossed both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. The service
flourished in the late 1930s, delivering both mail and passengers, and
gained a reputation as one of the most dependable and elegant air services
in the world.
Pan American was the first U.S. airline to embrace the jet era in
passenger aviation. Although a British airline, the British Overseas
Aircraft Corporation (BOAC), was the
first to offer regular transatlantic services, Pan Am, using a combination
of Boeing 707
and Douglas DC-8
aircraft, dominated the market in the 1960s while setting the standards
for excellent service.
Pan American also played a key role in shaping the economics and
eventual design of a new generation of wide-bodied jets. By defining
requirements for size and passenger capacity, Trippe influenced the shape
of Boeing's new aircraft—called the 747—which
was capable of carrying as many as 490 passengers. Trippe ordered 23
passenger 747s for Pan Am in April 1966. Although Boeing faced severe
delays in producing the aircraft on time, the company delivered its first
flight model in December 1969. A month later, on January 22, 1970, Pan
Am's first 747 took off from New York's John F. Kennedy Airport and headed
for the Atlantic carrying passengers.
After a steady and sustained rise as the most important American
airline, Pan American's fortunes began to dim in the 1970s. Economic
problems related to overexpansion and recession forced the company into
debt. Deregulation and its consequences only added to Pan Am's woes.
Although the company attempted to break into the domestic market by
acquiring National Airlines (in October 1980),
its problems only grew. Through the 1980s, it slowly sold off all its
assets and was operating at a huge loss. In 1990, Pan Am sold off its
major hub in London and the routes that it served to United
Airlines. Although the airline operated for a very short while on
emergency funding from Delta Air Lines, it
collapsed into bankruptcy in December 1991.
Despite a dramatic fall from grace, Pan American left behind a legacy
unmatched by any other airline in the history of U.S. aviation. Although
many other airlines were the first to offer regular services on various
international routes, it was Pan American Airways that set the standards
for service in the commercial aviation era. Pan Am's China Clipper
services, its expansion into South America, its pioneering partnership
with Boeing, its ambitious routes—such as its round-the-world jet
service inaugurated in October 1959, its flashy advertising campaigns, and
its reputation for good service, all made the company a leader and a
Note: This article was commissioned by and
first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It
appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author