Pan American World Airways, PAA or "Pan Am" for short, is undoubtedly one of the most glamorous airlines in world history, and we can thank Cuba
for it. It started as an air mail
operation, the brainchild of a man named Juan Trippe
, who in 1927 began service from Key West
in a borrowed Fairchild
seaplane. Two years later, Trippe bought out the first incarnation of Mexicana
, and began service between Florida and Mexico City
. Over the next two years, one of Pan Am's more famous pilots, Charles Lindbergh
, scouted out new routes in the Caribbean Sea
, while Trippe made successful bids to take over tiny carriers in Peru
, and Brazil
. In 1930, Trippe inaugurated air mail service from the United States to Buenos Aires
: his airline was living up to its name.
The following year, Trippe received a contract from the Boston and Maine Railroad to begin air service between Boston and Halifax, the beginning of Pan Am's North Atlantic service. Then, in 1934, Pan Am began its expansion into the Pacific, studying and establishing viable seaplane routes from San Francisco to Honolulu, and from Honolulu to Hong Kong (via Midway Island and Manila) and Auckland (via Pago Pago). The new Pan Am seaplanes, Sikorsky flying boats called "Clippers," flew passengers over the most distant routes in unparalleled luxury. Like oceangoing ships, each Clipper was given a name. Once in China, passengers could connect to their final destination via China National Aviation Corporation, a joint venture of Pan Am and the government of Chiang Kai Shek.
During World War II, Pan Am's aircraft were chartered by the military: Pan Am flew Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Casablanca, and brought the uranium for the atomic bomb from the Congo to New Mexico. Their navigators were used by the various air services on difficult overwater routes such as the Doolittle raid on Tokyo in 1942.
After the war, Pan Am was one of the only airlines to support the development of civilian jet aircraft. On October 26, 1958, they inaugurated the first civilian jet service in U.S. history, between Idlewild in New York and le Bourget in Paris. Within the next two years, they converted their most popular routes into "Jet Clipper" service, and in 1960 declared that "the free world has become a neighborhood." In the mid-sixties, they were one of the launch customers of the Boeing 747.
Pan Am played a major role in America's foreign affairs as well: they were the principal carrier to and from West Berlin during the height of the Cold War, ferrying supplies on scores of Boeing 727 aircraft. They also brought American soldiers from the front of the Vietnam War to R&R in Tokyo and Hong Kong, and inaugurated service between the US and the PRC in 1981 on the appropriately-named "China Clipper."
It is worthy to note that over this entire span of time, Pan Am lobbied heavily to ensure that it was the only international airline in the United States. This was the case before World War II, but after the war, Northwest Airlines began operations between the US and Japan, Trans World Airlines began service to Europe, and American Airlines and Eastern Airlines began serving Mexico. Before the deregulation of 1978, the Civil Aeronautics Board threw out a few more token route awards to various airlines: after deregulation, Pan Am was suddenly swamped with competition, as any airline could, and did, apply for international routes.
Pan Am bought National Airlines in 1980, in an effort to expand its domestic services. Rising fuel costs, however, made the gargantuan airline an increasingly expensive proposition to run. United Airlines acquired most of Pan Am's Pacific routes as the company's coffers began to dry up. The downing of "Clipper Maid of the Seas," Pan Am flight 103, in 1988 only worsened the airline's position. (Not to mention the fact that the airline featured prominently in both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner: both movies were notorious for ruining brand names.) In 1991, they ceased operations: their Latin American routes were sold to American Airlines, and their European routes to Delta Air Lines.
Since Pan Am's fall, the brand name has been resurrected twice with varying degrees of success: once as a highly undercapitalized low-fare carrier on the East Coast, and now as a subsidiary of Guilford Transportation, who are attempting to, once again, use Pan Am's presitigious name to run a shite-bag of an East Coast airline. Whether they will succeed in the long run is beyond me. For what it's worth, the original Pan Am's complete history is now archived at the University of Miami's library.
Principal source: www.panam.org