Airways Magazine

Best of Airways — The Pan Am Experience

 Breaking News

Best of Airways — The Pan Am Experience

Chris Sloan

Best of Airways — The Pan Am Experience
January 06
10:00 2018

Written by Chris Sloan • Airways Magazine, October 2017


“Good evening Ladies and Gentleman, in just a few moments we’ll begin boarding Pan Am Flight 120. Our aircraft tonight is a Boeing 747 with the tail number N747PA. It is the very first 747 off the assembly line, and it is named Clipper Juan T. Trippe after the CEO and Founder of Pan Am. We kindly ask you to have your boarding pass ready…”

Forty-three passengers have checked in for this evening’s flight. The ticket counter is bustling with activity as an imposing global Pan Am route map looms from the wall. With an ancient Panamac computer reservation system-generated boarding pass in hand, we make our way towards the gate area.

 

Today, the TSA screenings are not required due to the unique nature of this flight. The Clipper Lounge has taken on the convivial vibe of a cocktail party lubricated by liberally flowing Tom Collins and Harvey Wallbanger cocktails. No shorts and t-shirts are evident in this crowd; everyone is fashionably and formally attired, and the gleaming 747 looms in the background.

“Pan Am flight crew, please begin making your way toward the aircraft in preparation for boarding.”

The anticipation rises as the impeccably uniformed flight crew makes its choreographed procession to the gate, turning heads and triggering flashbulbs. Frank Sinatra’s standard Come Fly with Me strikes the perfect note as it positively booms from the public address system.

You could be forgiven for believing that you have traveled in time back to the 1970s, to New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport long-gone Pan Am’s Worldport terminal, bound for an exciting destination abroad. In fact, we are on a soundstage in decidedly non-glamorous, industrial Pacoima, California. We are ‘flying’ on December 3, 2016, an ignominious anniversary in history, 25 years to the day Pan Am ceased to exist. But, thanks to the passion of Anthony Toth and Talaat Captan, Pan Am is once again back ‘saying hello to a brand new world’.

 

We are entering a veritable time machine. The Pan Am Experience is a one-of-a-kind, nostalgic, and utterly entertaining tribute flight to nowhere that recreates the apex of the legendary Pan Am and the glory days of air travel aboard a reconstructed 747 cabin. It never leaves the ground. Think of an aviation version of a murder mystery dinner theater or Tony and Tina’s Wedding, and you get the idea.

This fantasy flight began 40 years earlier, when Anthony Toth, now a senior executive with a major US airline, became smitten with all things Pan Am. He vividly recalls that his first flight was on board a Pan Am Boeing 747 to Europe in 1971. The aircraft was in its infancy, and so was Toth, just 5 years old at the time. The Jumbo Jet immediately grabbed the precocious young jet setter’s imagination: “The thing I love about the 747 was that it is far beyond any other aircraft, with its winding staircase and the upper deck. They were just spectacular memories from my childhood. I wanted to recreate the experience of that aircraft in my home.” But that would come later.

For a young boy growing up outside Cleveland, it was an introduction to the larger world. Toth became obsessed with the airline business, but particularly with Pan Am.

“The Pan Am brand spoke to me,” he says. “I always felt that its promise was instrumental in creating the world’s airline industry. It was so fantastically responsible for so many of the things that today are sometimes taken for granted. Pan Am was our country’s unofficial flag carrier. It is as recognizable as any other leading brand on the planet today, despite the fact that it has been gone for 25 years.”

He began collecting the typical memorabilia: timetables, safety cards, airplane models, and route maps. But Toth took his hobby to even greater heights. He traveled with a tape recorder and recorded Pan Am’s inflight announcements, took copious notes documenting the cabin experience, and photographed the cabin, the food—everything. His parents even purchased him a subscription to OAG: The Official Airline Guide. By the time he was in his early teens, the beginnings of the Pan Am Experience had begun to take shape. Toth remembers nostalgically, “I ended up getting, much to my parent’s dismay, probably six or seven rows of airline seats and created my first little mockup of an aircraft. I was eating in an airline on a meal setup, sitting in an airline seat, listening to Pan Am audio. I was, in my mind, recreating this experience of flying Pan Am.”

Instead of outgrowing the hobby as he grew into adulthood and went to work in his beloved industry, he had an obsession—and enough airline memorabilia and service items to fill two storage facilities. By his mid-20s, Toth’s mission was to transform his Chicago apartment into an airplane cabin. He descended upon airplane graveyards, private collections, and archives, scouring them for the parts needed to fulfill his dream. “Inside that loft, I had constructed the Zone A nose area of the 747 all the way to the spiral staircase. I had the seats, overhead bins, sidewalls, and the center console table, though the ceiling wasn’t yet enclosed,” he says. “I lived in that airplane structure.”

Toth eventually moved across the country. His 747 not only made the cross-country trip with him but dictated where he was going to live. He bought a place that “purposely had an oversized garage, bought for the sole purpose of meticulously constructing the aircraft cabin, minus the upper deck,” he says. “I had the winding staircase but it went nowhere, hitting the ceiling and you couldn’t get any higher.”

Toth’s unyielding goal was to replicate the cabin perfectly. After all, he had photographed every inch of PA’s jumbos back in the day. His obsessive attention to detail extended right down to sourcing the actual fabrics and textures used to cover Pan Am’s famous First Class Sleeperette seats, recreating the exact patterns in the plush carpet, commissioning reproductions of the branded tri-color wall colored mural on the bulkhead and even the sidewalls. What he couldn’t find, he had manufactured.

 

When he secured a section of the fuselage and cabin of a former All Nippon Airways 747-200, his home outgrew its usefulness as a tarmac. He rented warehouse space in City of Industry, California, to expand his mockup all the way to the doors aft of 1A and the beginnings of his long-sought upper deck. With a contractor, Toth spent years perfecting his passion project: “We measured out every single piece between the nose and the staircase, the width of each row, the height of the ceiling and numbered every part just like a puzzle to reconstruct the 747, even adding a galley.”

 

Eventually, he was throwing parties for his friends and his staff in the industry. “I was holding sort of mini-Pan Am Experiences for some former employees of the airline and my friends. I would get a caterer and some girls to do the service. I wasn’t charging anybody.”

Around this time, Hollywood came knocking. Toth was contacted by movie production designers to rent parts of his collection. The movie Catch Me If You Can, the TV series Pan Am and Mad Men induced retro fascination for the 1960s mystique while rekindling affection for the brand. Toth was now asked to throw paying events. But with no air conditioning or parking, the warehouse wasn’t a viable option.

In a stroke of serendipity, Talaat Captan entered the scene and encouraged and brainstormed with Toth to think big, really big! Captan is the CEO and founder of Air Hollywood, a soundstage and production facility specializing in sets and mockups featuring airplanes and airports. Airline cabin scenes from Lost, The Wolf of Wall Street, Bridesmaids, and the Emirates Airlines commercials featuring Jennifer Anniston were filmed there.

Air Hollywood is not only acknowledged as the world’s leading studio location for aviation cabin-centric production but is also known as a leading fabricator of airline props and cabin mockups. Captan’s altruistic-minded company offers specialized programs for autistic children and to combat the fear of flying. And it doesn’t hurt that Captan, whose walls are plastered by boarding passes for virtually every flight he has ever taken, is a bona fide airline enthusiast.

Anthony Toth and Talaat Captan merged forces. As many a Pan Amer and airline employee will tell you, mergers don’t always work out, but this one did. “I brought Talaat to see it many years ago,” Toth said, “and his reaction was, ‘We can do a lot bigger and better.’”

Together, they decided to take it to the next level, perfecting the upper deck, adding a Clipper Class cabin, and most important, creating the present-day live Pan Am Experience. It took four months to disassemble the mockup, move it to Air Hollywood, and painstakingly rebuild it, while making vast improvements.

“We put it in giant trucks and hauled it in multiple loads to Air Hollywood, clearing the space that used to be the prop house,” Toth said. Captan’s team piled on upgrades such as LED mood lighting and enhanced announcements in audio and digital projections that the original Clippers never had. The absence of stethoscope headphones and low-fi sound systems are the rare concessions to the modern age.

The Pan Am Experience cabin is designed to early 1970s’ standards, when Pan Am was at its pinnacle. In the initial days of the 747, during takeoff and landing, the upper deck seating was not certified. A recession was raging at the time, with jumbo jets flying half full at the time, so airlines like Pan Am used the plane’s penthouse as airborne cocktail lounges.

The Pan Am Experience’s upper deck lounge boasts 14 authentic, decidedly retro style, white seats and sofas covered in nearly fluorescent shades of yellow and orange upholstery with omnipresent cocktail tables. The seats in this intimate cabin sell out first.

The original main deck section in the A zone has 18 reclining Sleeperette seats covered in Teague Design’s alternating red and blue velour, with a seat pitch that rivals today’s First Class. In the middle of the cabin is the iconic 747 center buffet bearing fresh flowers and spirits.

Aft of the spiral staircase and galley is the Clipper Class—Pan Am-invented the concept of a Business Class cabin. When the Pan Am Experience first opened, this small cabin was just an Economy cabin with upgraded catering and free spirits and seats weren’t even sold in it. In the late 1970s, the actual airplanes’ Clipper Class evolved into a fully developed separate cabin with wider seats and enhanced pitch. Reservations in the reconstruction’s 16-seat, reconfigured cabin, complete with an original stand-up bar, are now being accepted. The only difference in service is the lack of caviar!

“Although this 747 aircraft will never leave the ground,” Toth said, “our flight time today will be about four hours. In case you’re wondering about the destination, it’s the 1970s, and we are about to start our journey there.”

When Toth and Captan officially launched the Pan Am Experience in the fall of 2014—pardon the play on words—it took off! With little promotion, word of mouth spread and then national media outlets CNN and The Today Show made sure that the Pan Am Experience was no longer a best-kept secret.

“We started to get people who had flown the airline when they were younger and had fond memories of it, young people who had never flown Pan Am before but had heard about it, and then, of course, we got your die-hard former Pan Am employees,” says Toth.

The event, held roughly two times per month, has become a sensation. The tickets almost immediately sell out within hours of going on sale. It isn’t a cheap flight, either; it can cost more than many actual flights. Clipper Class costs $245 per seat. First Class on the lower deck is $295. And, for those who like it on top, $690 for a pair of seats on the Upper Deck. Nearly 3,000 passengers, including celebrities like John Travolta, have experienced it, many more than once. In airline speak, the load factors are close to 100% on every flight. And everyone is treated like a VIP.

 

For all of his passion in building the mockup, Toth considers the crew the real secret to surprising and delighting. Their attire, charm, and un-PC humor are what brings the flight to life.

“It’s just a 747 shell with seats and tables, but what makes the Experience is when you put 12 Stewardesses and three Pilots in vintage Pan Am uniforms, fill it with excited passengers. Now, add the right music, and roll those carts down the aisle,” says Toth, who himself always plays the role of Captain.

Deciding to test this upon boarding, I asked one of the Stewardesses, “Can we use our cell phones on the ground?” The response is, “What’s a cell phone? We are in 1974!” Another passenger asks whether he can join the Mile High Club. The stewardesses respond with a deadpan, “Sure, you can join if you book a hotel room in Denver.”

As this is Hollywood, the crew is selected by a casting agency. But, to ensure that their service is impeccably accurate, The Experience team recruited an original Pan Amer to conduct training. “I have a very close friend who worked for Pan Am her whole career,” Toth said. “She is instrumental in helping the girls learn and achieve the Pan Am product delivery.”

“As we prepare for departure, please pay close attention to this important information for our 747,” Toth says during the flight announcement. “Just in case anyone inside our aircraft has not been inside an automobile since 1964, we will show you how to fasten a seat belt. Take the metal end and insert it into the buckle. Tighten by pulling on the strap. Unless we have an earthquake tonight, you shouldn’t expect any movement of the aircraft, so your seat belt isn’t that necessary. Smoking is prohibited on board. In fact, can’t we all just agree that it was crazy that we let people smoke on airplanes back then?”

This Back to the Future flight begins with a safety briefing and the non-smoking admonishment that would make Delta’s Flight Attendant and safety video presenter, Deltalina, proud. Shortly after we are airborne, a five- to six-course meal service commences. Designed by Maxim’s of Paris, it was considered the height of haute cuisine at the time, and for this flight, it is recreated and catered by the Flying Food Group at Los Angeles International Airport, loaded into carts, and then reheated at the Pan Am Experience. This opus of a food service is plated and carved at your seat.

The mouth-watering feast is gourmet fare for the 1970s. The menu oozes high-caloric, belt-loosening deliciousness. Bread, caviar, shrimp cocktail or caprese salad appetizer; hand carved chateaubriand or roasted chicken with peppercorn sauce, or a vegetarian pasta entrée; fruit and cheese and biscuit platter; dessert cart. And, of course, all this decadence is accompanied by a bottomless well of premium liquors, wines, ports, and digestives.

The crew makes it look easy, but, at the back of the house, things are busy. Toth said: “To get the flight off the ground is somewhat intense. We go through 18 different carts and 1,000 pieces of authentic Pan Am service items. Everything from the coasters, linen napkins, menus, stir sticks, all have to be in the right place at the right time. Setting up the aircraft with the bars, printing and binding each menu, and preparing boarding passes is a lot of work. I have a whole new appreciation for inflight service now that we have to do it ourselves.”

The passengers are all in on the surprise and delight of the Experience. Unlike a typical flight, no one opts to sleep, unless perhaps they have imbibed too much. There’s too much to keep the passengers entertained. No individual inflight entertainment systems existed in the 1970s, a movie is projected on large center screens. The film isn’t one any airline would ever dare show in flight; but, on the Pan Am Experience, the cult classic Airplane is a crowd pleaser with the passengers reciting many of the famous lines. Surely, you can’t be serious. Well, yes I am—and don’t call me Shirley!

No detail is too small, from the vintage 1970s-era magazines handed out inflight to simulated cigarette smoking. Prop-lit cigarettes and ashtrays are a hit with the crowd, many passengers posing with smoke in hand for photos.

For the inner AvGeek, there’s a Pan Am Trivia contest. I answer nine out of 10 questions correctly and still don’t win one of the Pan Am bags awarded to the top three contestants. Shame on me for not knowing that the official name for the bulkhead was ‘Universe’.

Then the aisle turns into a runway for a narrated fashion show of cabin crew uniforms from multiple eras of Pan Am’s jet age. The lights dim and period music from the 1960s to the early 1990s accompanies the performance. I’m not sure one can ever consider a Madonna song bittersweet, but there is one in this case. The last Pan Am uniform is modeled against the backdrop of Madonna’s 1980s standard Dress You Up, a hit in the final years of the airline.

As the experience begins its final descent back into Pacoima and 2016, spirits remain high. It is a flight from which no one wants to disembark.

Toth, Captan, and their crew work tirelessly to perfect their passion project. Neither of the two principals has missed a night in the two and a half years the Pan Am Experience has been running. Captan considers himself just slightly more grounded than his partner: “I’m passionate, but Anthony is crazy—but in a right way. He wants to buy everything Pan Am in sight.”

Their enthusiasm for things with wings is infectious, especially those displaying the famed Pan Am meatball. But something even more profound than kerosene fumes propels their personal P&W JT-9Ds. “We love it because the people that you meet are passionate about Pan Am and the era. We enjoy the experience as much as they do,” says Captan.

Toth adds: “The most meaningful moments are with former Pan Am employees. You can see the look on their faces when they walk in the airplane, and they see their company brought back to life. Their feedback improves us as they were there. We’ve had some people who shed tears over it because, for a few hours, they can’t believe Pan Am is here and alive.”

Thanks to the Air Hollywood team and the perfectionist dedication of two AvGeeks who never outgrew their passion, The Chosen Instrument, Pan Am, flies—in hearts—again.

0

About Author

Chris Sloan

Chris Sloan

Aviation Journalist, TV Producer, Pursuer of First & Last Flights, Proud Miamian, Intrepid Traveler, and Did I Mention Av-Geek? I’ve Been Sniffing Jet Fuel Since I was 5, and running the predecessor to airwaysmag.com, Airchive, Since 2003. Now, I Sit in the Right Seat as Co-Pilot of Airways Magazine and airwaysmag.com. My favorite Airlines are National and Braniff, and My favorite Airport is Miami, L-1011 Tristar Lover. My Mantra is Lifted From Delta’s Ad Campaign from the 1980s “I Love To Fly And It Shows.” chris@airwaysmag.com / @airchive

Related Articles

0 Comments

No Comments Yet!

There are no comments at the moment, do you want to add one?

Write a comment

Only registered users can comment.

Current Issue

Purchase
Subscribe