MIAMI – Today in Aviation, Pan Am returned to the Soviet Union in 1986 after eight years, using a Boeing 747 from New York’s JFK airport.
The first commercial flight from the United States to the Soviet Union since 1978 arrived the day after on April 29, 1986, carrying the American Ambassador and 56 other passengers who toasted the resumption of air service between the superpowers with champagne.
US-USSR Flight Resumption
At 5:40 p.m., a Pan American World Airways flight from New York arrived at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport (SVO) via Frankfurt (9:40 A.M. New York time). After a refueling stop in Gander, Newfoundland, an Aeroflot (SU) jetliner took off from Moscow earlier in the day, bound for Dulles Airport in Washington.
At the 1985 November’s Geneva summit, President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev decided to restore commercial air service between the two countries, which had been suspended since 1981.
The passengers traveled from New York to Frankfurt on a Boeing 747, then switched to a Boeing 727 for the final leg to Moscow. According to a 1986 report by The New York Times, Ambassador Arthur Hartman, his wife Donna, and Hans Mirka, a Pan Am senior vice president, were among those on board the Pan Am Boeing 727, which seats 145 passengers.
As per the report, Mr. Mirka said that Pan Am stopped flying to Moscow in 1978 because it was “taking a bath” financially. He also claimed that a new agreement with Moscow’s aviation authorities would ensure Pan Am’s profitability.
After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, the Carter administration ordered SU to stop serving New York but permitted it to continue serving Washington.
How Pan Am (and Aeroflot) Opened the Iron Curtain
At the height of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a decades-long confrontation that threatened the entire globe, it was left to Pan American World Airways (PA) to play a unique role as the ‘chosen instrument’ of US foreign policy.
Despite the hostility that existed between the superpowers, Pan American opened an airline route between the US and USSR. When, on July 15, 1968, scheduled service from New York to Moscow began, it was a major accomplishment in diplomatic as well as aviation history.
It had taken years to reach this point—years during which relations between the US and the USSR ran the gamut from friendly to confrontational, marked by events that shook the world.
Attempts to Bridge the Divide
Pan American had expressed interest in entering into an agreement for airline service to the USSR as early as the 1930s, when Pan American founder Juan Trippe held discussions with the Soviets. But this initial attempt at dialogue was thwarted by politics.
In 1945, the US Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) awarded American Export Airlines (AEA) permission to serve Moscow by extension from Helsinki. That authority was transferred to American Overseas Airlines (AOA) when American Airlines purchased AEA. Pan American inherited this license to serve Moscow when it acquired AOA through merger in 1950, but the route had lain dormant due to the Cold War.
During the Geneva Summit of 1955, US President Dwight Eisenhower proposed a bilateral air service agreement (ASA) with the USSR. Instead, the Soviets concluded their first bilateral ASA with Finland.
In 1956, the USSR negotiated bilateral ASAs with the Scandinavian countries for routes to Copenhagen with ‘beyond’ (Fifth Freedom) rights to London, Brussels, Paris, and Amsterdam. At the same time, the Soviet Embassy in Washington approached Trippe and Pan American about opening a service between the US and the USSR.
Trippe reported the contact to the US State Department and the CAB. With their permission, he was authorized to continue discussions, reverting to his old style diplomacy, although the opening of the route would be contingent upon the two countries signing an official bilateral air service agreement.
Vested with that authority, Trippe went to Washington to meet with Yevgeny F. Loginov, the Soviet Minister of Civil Aviation and Director of SU. These initial discussions were protracted and focused on technical matters such as maintenance facilities, radio navigation, fuel storage, and baggage handling.
The US-USSR Cultural Exchange Agreement
By 1958, both nations had agreed to Exchange airline service. The US-USSR Cultural Exchange Agreement of 1958-59 contained promises that an air pact would be signed in due course, although Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev accused the US ambassador to the USSR of ‘foot-dragging’ in the negotiations.
The Cultural Exchange included an exhibition of American consumer goods and automóviles displayed in Moscow. A mock-up of an American kitchen, which was part of the exhibition, was the scene of the famous ‘kitchen debate’ between US Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Khrushchev.
In the summer of 1959, while the American exhibit was on display in Moscow, a Soviet cultural and technical exhibit was presented simultaneously in New York. The Soviet display included one of SU’s gigantic Tupolev TU-114 turboprop transports, available for viewing at Idlewild Airport (today’s JFK).
In 1959, Trippe accompanied Nixon to Moscow in order to meet with his Aeroflot counterpart. The Aeroflot chief later accompanied Khrushchev to the US and suggested that the US attempt to persuade the Scandinavian countries to give the Soviets overflight (First Freedom) rights on its route to New York. Unfortunately, this suggestion conflicted with NATO’s policy of ‘confining’ Soviet international aviation and insisting on strict reciprocity.
Further talks were postponed after US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the USSR in the famous U-2 incident of May 1, 1960, followed by the abortive Paris Peace Summit meeting.
Progress in the Sixties
Talks resumed under President John F. Kennedy. However, the FAA Administrator warned Secretary of State Dean Rusk that a standard bilateral ASA, modeled on the Bermuda Agreement of 1946, would put Pan American at a disadvantage compared with Aeroflot. But the countries finally came to terms and Pan American and Aeroflot agreed on inter-carrier matters.
Unfortunately, the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 heated up Cold War tensions and President Kennedy declined to sign the ASA.
In 1963, Kennedy advised Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs Andrei Gromyko that the US was ready to move forward on an air service agreement, although outstanding issues remained to be resolved. It was not until December 1963 that President Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded the late President Kennedy, instructed Najeeb Halaby, head of the FAA (and a future Pan American president), to solve the remaining problems with the Soviets over the treaty.
In the US, there was opposition to the treaty over fears that the pact would allow Soviet penetration into the Western hemisphere. Then the Vietnam War escalated and, once again, relations soured between the superpowers.
Aeroflot and the 1966 Bilateral Treaty
However, the USSR and Canada concluded a bilateral air agreement in 1966 giving Aeroflot authority to serve Montreal. President Johnson suggested that America’s unsigned ASA get another look and, on November 4, 1966, the US – USSR Air Service Agreement was finally signed in Washington.
The bilateral treaty differed from typical ASAs in that the commercial aspects of air services between the two countries, including capacity and tariffs, were subject to a prior agreement between the designated airlines, Pan American and SU.
Complications arose in 1967, when it was discovered that Aeroflot’s aircraft did not meet noise limitations, had insufficient avionics, and flew too fast for US holding patterns. Rumors maintained that the Soviets did not want to share technical data because of the similarities between their commercial aircraft and their bombers.
A new Soviet plane, the IL-62, had begun making test trips to New York and to other US airports. The Soviet-Canadian bilateral agreement was amended to give Aeroflot traffic rights beyond Canada (Montreal or Gander) to New York.
July 15, 1968, was the big day. SU’s inaugural flight arrived at Kennedy Airport from SVO. And a Pan American 707 took off for Moscow via Copenhagen on its inaugural flight to the Soviet Union.
Pan American’s Moscow Service
For the next 10 years, Pan American operated either one or two flights weekly between New York and Moscow using Boeing 707 equipment.
The arrangement was a money loser. It allowed twice a week round-trips for each airline and the Soviets prohibited Pan American from drumming up business in the USSR. While it may have been in the national interest for an American flag carrier to fly to Moscow, no subsidy from Washington was forthcoming.
Initially, Pan American’s Moscow service was operated by Flight 44 eastbound and Flight 45 westbound, with Boeing 707 equipment. In the September 1969 timetable, the service was operated twice a week, Flight 44 on Mondays and Fridays, and the return, Flight 45, on Tuesdays and Saturdays. The route included a stop in Copenhagen, although no local traffic was permitted between that city and Moscow.
During the early Seventies, Pan American’s Moscow flights continued to operate on an either weekly or semi-weekly basis via Copenhagen, London, or Brussels, still employing 707s.
The US and the USSR signed an agreement on joint cooperation in the field of transportation calling for exchanges of information, including the safety and efficiency of civil aviation, and, as a result, FAA and Soviet officials held meetings on a variety of technical subjects.
The agreement was one of a series signed by officials during a summit meeting between President Nixon and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. The last of these agreements, signed June 23, 1973, provided for an expansion of direct airline flights between the two countries.
You can read Airline Diplomacy, the full story of how Pan Am and Aeroflot opened the Iron Curtain by James Baldwin, published in the July 2016 issue of Airways Magazine here:
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Previously, Pan American and Aeroflot had each been allowed two round-trip flights per week between New York and Moscow; the two airlines were now permitted up to three. Pan American received authorization to land at Leningrad (LED), and Aeroflot received permission to operate between SVO and Washington Dulles (IAD).
On April 5, 1974, SU inaugurated service between the two capitals, via Shannon (SNN) and Gander (YQX), with IL-62 equipment. After introducing the greater-range IL-62M model, Aeroflot’s Moscow-Washington flights operated through Paris Charles de Gaulle (CDG).
By August 1978, Pan American’s service used Boeing 747 equipment between New York and Frankfurt (FRA) and Boeing 727 equipment between Frankfurt and Moscow. The rotation operated twice a week; Mondays and Fridays eastbound and Wednesdays and Sundays westbound. There appeared to be no restrictions on local traffic between Frankfurt and Moscow.
Pan Am Halts in US-USSR Flights
In 1978, Pan American discontinued operations in the USSR as part of a cutback on its European flights. The load factors were low. Quite simply, Soviet citizens were being prevented from buying Pan American tickets; to obtain papers to travel abroad, they were required to hold Aeroflot tickets. And Aeroflot would undersell Western airlines to earn hard currency.
Even after Pan American quit its operations, Aeroflot continued its Moscow-New York service. However, under President Carter, SU’s service was reduced to two flights per week, effective January 13, 1980, as part of a response to Soviet military actions in Afghanistan.
The 1986 Agreement
In 1986, Pan American resumed service to the USSR under a new ASA with the USSR signed that January. Negotiations between the two countries had been ongoing prior to the signing but had become difficult after the shooting down of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 by a Soviet SU- 15 Interceptor on September 1, 1983.
Eventually, Pan American was allowed to serve Moscow and Leningrad on the same route, and to open a street-level office in the International Trade Building in Moscow.
The 1986 agreement also gave Pan American First Freedom (overfly) rights across Soviet territory for flights between Europe and the Indian Subcontinent. It also provided a revenue balancing feature: upon reaching a 12,000-passenger threshold, Pan American, Aeroflot, or both would pay each other $350 per passenger exceeding that threshold.
The route was operated with Boeing 747 equipment between New York and Frankfurt and a Boeing 727-200 onward to Moscow and Leningrad. The October 1986 timetable showed the service being operated twice a week.
From New York to Moscow Nonstop
Pan American continued this service until a major breakthrough came in 1988: the inauguration of nonstop service between New York and Moscow with the Boeing 747. The new service introduced an unusual arrangement for both Pan American and Aeroflot. The nonstop 747 service employed a Pan American aircraft operated by a mixed Pan Am – Aeroflot flight crew.
Each airline was able to sell up to one-half of the available passenger and cargo capacity on the 747, charging fares at its own rate. Each flight carried up to three Aeroflot Flight Attendants to assist those Soviet passengers who could not speak English.
The ‘friendship air bridge’, as it was called by an Aeroflot official, came about as a result of the then improving business climate between the US and the USSR. The new nonstop service did not replace the existing narrow-body one that also included the stop in Leningrad.
After the Collapse of the USSR
Pan American continued the non-stop service, as well as the Boeing 727 service to Moscow and Leningrad, until November 1991, when Delta Air Lines (DL) took over Pan Am’s European operations.
During 1990, negotiations between the US and the USSR resulted in a new bilateral ASA that opened up new destinations in both countries and included permission for transpacific as well as transatlantic service. New destinations included Anchorage, San Francisco, Chicago, and Miami in the US; and, on the Soviet side, Kiev, Magadan, Khabarovsk, Tbilisi, and Riga, Latvia.
The new agreement also stated that, after April 1, 1991, up to four additional US passenger airlines and two all-cargo airlines could fly to the Soviet Union, while allowing the USSR to expand Aeroflot’s schedule or establish new airlines to compete with Aeroflot on the US routes. After the collapse of the USSR, the US and Russia entered into a new air transport agreement dated January 14, 1994.
50 years later, as US-Russian ties seem to deteriorate and are not expected to improve anytime soon, it is enlightening to look back on how airline diplomacy and bilateral agreements opened the Iron Curtain amid the Cold War era.
Featured image: Pan Am Boeing 747-100 (“Clipper Star of the Union”) at John F. Kennedy Airport in May 1973. Photo: By Arthur Tress, Public Domain. About the author: James Patrick Baldwin is an author, blogger, lecturer, and consultant in air transportation, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Maryland University College (UMUC), a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Westminster (London), and a Visiting Lecturer at Emirates Aviation University (Dubai). He is also a Contributing Editor to Airways Magazine.