DALLAS – Today in Aviation, Pan Am completed the purchase of the “Coast-to-Coast-to-Coast” carrier National Airlines in 1980.

Pan Am had desperately tried to build a domestic network across the US for many years. There were even discussions of a merger with United Airlines (UA) or American Airlines (AA). However, their attempts were constantly rejected. This left the airline with no feed for its long-haul network, which impacted its financial performance.

National advertised itself as a more glamorous alternative to staid rival Eastern Air Lines, with slogans like “Airline of the Stars” and “Fly Me,” and painted their aircraft with orange and grapefruit colored stripes to reflect their Florida roots. In 1970, National was chosen over Pan Am and TWA to operate nonstop service between Miami and London, making it the United States’ third transatlantic airline.

Then in 1978, the Airline Deregulation Act led to many US carriers who had previously only operated domestically, add international routes to their networks.

Pan Am began discussions to acquire Miami (MIA) based National Airlines (NA) in early 1979. Texas International Airlines (TI) and Eastern Airlines (EA) attempted to take over NA. But it was PA who would emerge the winner.

For many years, Pan Am had National Airlines in its eyes. National would link Pan Am’s main gateways of New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

The US government finally approved the US$437m take over on December 22, 1979. The combined carriers would employ 35,000 staff and become the countries fourth largest airline.

A Boeing 727 in the livery of National Airlines landing at Miami International Airport (1980). The airline had already been taken over by Pan Am. Photo: By Peter Duijnmayer – Gallery page http://www.airliners.net/photo/National-Airlines/Boeing-727-235/0987417/LPhoto http://cdn-www.airliners.net/aviation-photos/photos/7/1/4/0987417.jpg, GFDL 1.2, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=27407550

Pan Am’s Downward Spiral


Despite an optimistic outlook that the takeover would improve Pan Am’s fortunes, it had the opposite effect. Many believed that Pan Am paid far too high a price for the airline. Integration of both the fleet and staff proved incredibly challenging.

Pan Am agreed to raise the wages of National’s unionized employees to the much higher salaries earned by Pan Am’s staff as part of the process of combining the two airlines’ workforces, which meant that flights that were profitable at National’s low-cost levels became unprofitable at Pan Am’s higher costs.

And in reality, National did not have the extensive US domestic network PA so desperately required. Alas, in the late 1970s, unrest in the Middle East prompted oil prices to skyrocket, greatly raising the costs of the merged airlines.

A year after the purchase, Pan Am had lost US$18.9m. In a bid to stay in the air, management began to sell off assets starting with its iconic Manhattan head office for US$400m. This was followed by its Pacific routes to United Airlines (UA).

Tragically, the bombing over Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland on December 21, 1988, was the final nail in the coffin for the airline. PA limped on until December 4, 1991, when it ceased operations.


Featured image: National Boeing 747-100 at London Heathrow Airport (1973). Photo: By clipperarctic – National Airlines 747, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28485719. Article sources: Pan AM, wahsonline.com