MIAMI — Twenty-five years after its demise, Pan Am the erstwhile un-official flag carrier is still regarded as the most storied name in commercial aviation.
In its day, its founder and CEO Juan T. Trippe was equivalent to Elon Musk and its pioneering globe-shrinking routes were tantamount to moon shots. Indeed, just twelve years after its inaugural 90-mile route between Key West and Havana, Pan Am’s Clipper Aircraft were spanning Latin America, across the Pacific to Asia, and across the Atlantic to Europe — all routes Pan Am pioneered.
The history of Pan Am is the history of commercial aviation itself.
No wonder, the famous globe logo continues to be one of the most recognized brand insignias the world over. To this day, PanAm continues to be an endless source of fascination, romance, and inspiration.
The ‘Chosen Instrument’ as Pan Am was often called in those days, has been unsurprisingly a prolific subject for book authors. A quick search on Google and Amazon reveals a torrent of Pan Am titles, numbering nearly a hundred books. My library accommodates three shelves alone of books devoted to this pioneering and innovative company. The number of books dedicated to Pan Am exceed the number of years the airline was alive.
So what was the raison d’etre for yet another Pan Am book?
Hadn’t every word been written about this long expired fabled carrier? Every story told? Every image published? What could possibly be different to warrant another book, let alone a 432 page opus?
Matthis C. Huhne, a devotee of airline branding and author of the very well received Airline Visual Identity, 1945-1975 thought there was room for another Pan Am book.
Given his previous efforts, I expected Huhne’s latest work Pan Am History, Design, and Identity to be a lovingly curated body of Pan Am’s memorabilia and look. When the book landed like thud on my desk, I have to admit I was skeptical and somewhat dreading committing the time to reviewing this large format tome’s exhaustive pages and 900 photos, route maps, and illustrations. Would this just be a coffee table compendium of images, more akin to an architecture review? After all, I am not an art critic.
My trepidation would be totally unfounded. In fact, I would be pleasantly surprised that Huhne turns out to be quite the historian and raconteur. This hefty volume endeavors to go beyond the known facts and deep dives into many obscure and unexpected anecdotes.
Huhne’s poster collection and fascination with design forms the backbone of the book. And here the surprises begin. Famed commercial artist Norman Rockwell was commissioned by Pan Am to create an ad campaign which never ran. Rockwell considered it “the most disappointing fiasco of my career.”
In keeping with the clean aesthetic of the book, it is organized largely by eras with each era introduced by very detailed redrawn route maps. Huhne delves into very detailed histories of the famous Pan Am brand, marque, and typefaces. He reveals short lived efforts such as the use of an arrow initially in the logo and an ill-fated attempt at minimalist use of the Pan Am name in Helvetica when the 747 first went into service. Public and employee outcry abandoned this before the new look could be applied to the aircraft.
Often lost in history is the many ways the Pan Am’s brand was referred to. Pan American Airways, PAA, gave way to Pan American World Airways as the airline’s aspirations grew into spanning the globe in the 1930s. Often the flying public and media just called the airline “Pan Am”. This abbreviated nickname became the official brand name in 1958 as Pan Am was pioneering the jet age with the introduction of the 707 when the team of Barnes and Forberg introduced the meatball logo.
In lieu of laboriously re-telling every piece of Pan Am history, Huhne reveals some more of the lesser known factoids, firsts, and stories behind the stories exposing Pan Am’s canny strategies.
Among them: Why did Pan Am chose to conquer the more formidable Trans Pacific routes before the Atlantic? How Pan Am practically invented radio navigation and how that was the airline’s first of firsts in spanning the globe. What was the reason behind the Clipper Ship aircraft nomenclature and naval theme permeating the airline, beginning in 1931 with the Sikorsky S-38 commissioned American Clipper, lasting until the end of the airline? The real story of Trippe out-maneuvering and leveraging Boeing into building the larger 707 by ordering the competing Douglas DC-8. How Trippe’s and his airline became reviled in the industry by subtly divesting of its prop driven fleet before the jet age began in earnest.
One of the most counter-intuitive stories involves Pan Am’s famed intimate levels of inflight service. Thought to be at its apogee when the jets arrived, it counter-intuitively began its descent at that time. The rationale being that the jet age transformed the social atmosphere of flying. This led to a more anonymous atmosphere with larger aircraft and shorter flight durations making it more difficult for pilots and crew to socialize with their passengers than in the prop driven past.
The story of how Pan Am selling tickets to the moon in 1969 is worthy of an episode of Mad Men. It really began as a joke by a few inebriated marketing executives. Finally, a deep dive is given to Pan Am’s hubris and arrogance that in spite of all of its trailblazing contributions to the industry, mankind, and particularly to America’s war effort in WWII that led to its gradual downward spiral into oblivion.
Many detailed sidebars into other important ventures beyond the core airline come into play. The InterContinental Hotels receives its on chapter showcasing every hotel in the chain. Each one was unique in its appointments and design inspired by its location, beginning with its first hotel, the Mark Hopkins in San Francisco. By the time Pan Am divested of InterContinental in 1981, there were 83 hotels located in 47 countries.
Pan Am gave birth to commercial aviation in foreign nations creating and owning carriers such as China’s CNAC and the predecessor to Mexicana. Not widely known is that Pan Am also pioneered crucial domestic routes. PA was always denied the right to fly domestically with the exception of Hawaii until deregulation in 1978. Pan Am operated the first scheduled flights between the U.S. and Alaska to serve what would become the 49th state with its subsidiary Pacific-Alaska Airways.
Other somewhat obscure topics given their due are Pan Am’s marketing of Falcon Business Jets and support services for NASA including the guided missile range and the Space Shuttle Orbiter.
The airline’s famous gateway WorldPort at New York’s JFK Airport and the imposing and controversial Pan Am Building blocking off Park Avenue in New York are documented more comprehensively than in any book I have ever seen.
Quite simply, this book is a masterpiece that is not only a tribute to Pan Am, but a testament to the Twentieth Century brand of American optimism, innovation, and modernism. Matthias C. Huhne’s passion project is the most beautiful and detailed book on an airline that I have ever read. Pan Am: History, Design, and Identity actually doesn’t belong put away on the shelf of a Pan Am enthusiast or aficionado of design, innovation, and art.
This book belongs on full display in a prominent place for all to appreciate. As the airline approaches its 90th birthday, the author has set the bar very high for any future books to come.