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Business

Pan Am: Around the world with the blue globe

Thirty years ago, Pan Am ceased operations. The US airline put its stamp on civil aviation like no other and will always be remembered, especially by people in Berlin.

Pan American World Airways plane

Pan American World Airways has secured a safe place in the history of civil aviation

It's been three decades since Pan Am closed up shop. Its last flight, PA436, from Bridgetown, Barbados to Miami took place on December 4, 1991, ending the global aviation icon's 64-year saga.

It's a saga that is still remembered today all over the world, but especially in the once-divided city of Berlin, where the blue Pan Am globe on the tail of the airline's Clipper aircraft was always seen as a symbol of hope and freedom during the Cold War.

"No other airline has influenced aviation nearly as much, and no other carrier understood it so well the importance of letting the public participate in these achievements," said Berlin-based real estate developer Matthias Hühne, Pan Am expert and author of an extensive homage to the airline. "That's how a myth formed: the freedom to be transported to almost any place on Earth within just a few hours."

Thanks to its huge network reaching even remote corners of the globe, Pan Am was able to do just that; no other airline had the same reach.

Humble beginnings

It all started on October 19, 1927, with a short hop in a rented floatplane from Key West in Florida to Havana, Cuba. This was Pan Am's first flight. By the time he retired in 1968, visionary entrepreneur and New Jersey native Juan Trippe had established Pan American World Airways, a unique aviation empire that, under Pan Am's famous blue globe logo, brought the world together like no other venture had.

Trippe came up with his master plan in November 1935 when Pan Am's Martin M 130 flying boat, the "China Clipper," completed the first trans-Pacific air mail service between San Francisco and Manila. The four-engine flying boat covered the distance of roughly 8,000 miles (12,875 kilometers) in seven days, beating the fastest connection by ship at the time by more than two weeks.

Within two years, the first trans-Atlantic routes to Europe followed. London and Paris were the first destinations to be connected by flying boat to the new world. Within just 10 years, Pan Am had brought the continents significantly closer together.

Pan American World Airways flight

Pan American World Airways welcomed umpteen famous people on board like these Wightman Cup tennis players flying to England

Postwar takeoff

Although privately owned, after World War II Pan Am became the de facto US national carrier in international aviation. In January 1946, Pan Am established the first trans-Atlantic flights using land-based aircraft. The scheduled DC-4 services from New York to Hurn near London took 17 hours and 40 minutes including stops. To Lisbon, it was just a little under 21 hours.

Since 1948, Pan Am's predecessor, AOA, had been present in postwar Germany as the first international airline, long before 1955, when the Germans were permitted to operate their own air traffic again. The presence of the Americans was decisive in air traffic to West Berlin as the then divided city could only be served by allied carriers. Pan Am assumed that role from 1950.

Initially, four-engine DC-4s were deployed on the air corridors to six West German cities.

"It didn't have a pressurized cabin. I often got sick," recalled Jutta Cartsburg from Berlin, who was hired in 1958 as a Pan Am stewardess fresh from language school. "We mostly flew refugees at the time."

Pan Am was the biggest international player and carried almost 2.6 million passengers in 1956. But Trippe wanted more. He wanted to make flying accessible to more people, not just the rich.

Jet age player

Trippe had an unbeatable instinct for technical innovations. In the mid-1950s, he decided the time was ripe for the start of the jet age. In October 1955, he put in simultaneous ordes for two competing plane models of the early jet era: 20 four-engine 707s from Boeing and 25 DC-8s from Douglas.

Trippe and the head of Boeing, William Allan, were close friends. Risky deals worth billions of dollars always came about like this: "You'll build it, I'll buy it." Without the vision and financial strength of Pan Am, it's likely aircraft manufacturing and air traffic would have developed at a slower pace.

On October 26, 1958, the jet era began with the inaugural flight of a Boeing 707 from New York to Paris. The jetliner became a roaring success. In the process, Pan Am became the most glamorous airline in the world.

In the 1960s, business was booming at Pan Am, with annual passenger growth of 15%. Trippe was ready for the next quantum leap. On April 13, 1966, in what was arguably his most visionary move, he ordered 25 Boeing 747s.

It was an aircraft of unmatched dimensions at the time. Designed to carry up to 490 passengers, it was later dubbed the "jumbo jet”. Again, this important step in aviation development arguably wouldn't have happened without the courage of Juan Trippe. His retirement was followed by many hectic management changes and ill-fated mergers.

Pan American World Airways' last flight from Tokyo's international airport in 1986

Back in 1986, Pan American World Airways saw its last flight from Tokyo's international airport

What goes up must come down?

From there, the downward spiral continued. The glamour on board became but a wistful memory. With the 747, however, Trippe's objective to make flying affordable to the masses had been achieved.

During the 1980s, Pan Am's financial situation became ever more dire. Then there was the Lockerbie bombing in 1988 in which 270 people died on a 747 and on the ground in Scotland. Flight bookings collapsed and on December 4, 1991, Pan Am filed for bankruptcy.

"There was this constant hope, but then always something new happened, and it is still a mystery for me how Pan Am could have gone under," said Jo Haselby, a late Pam Am pilot who has remained in Berlin.

"Thirty years after its bankruptcy, the legacy of Pan Am endures," Deborah Cattano Gaudiose, a board member of the Pan Am museum in New York, told DW. "It defined commercial aviation, and its influence is still evident today."

Edited by: Kristie Pladson, Hardy Graupner