“The signs should have been clear: The poorly-timed acquisition of National Airlines just as deregulation was fueling domestic competition followed by the sale of several key non-core assets to stem the flow of red ink, most notably the iconic Pan Am Building to Met Life in 1980, the sale of its Intercontinental Hotels subsidiary to Grand Metropolitan the following year. The 1985 sale of its Pacific Division to United Airlines, however, showed how serious things really were.”
25 Years Ago Today, Pan Am Ceased Operations
That commentary was written in this article by Jonathan Spira, who is the editorial director of Frequent Business Traveler and still mourns the loss of Pan American World Airways — an airline which he considers “the nation’s unofficial flag carrier and a cultural icon” on which he grew up flying as a passenger. He achieved Platinum elite level status in the WorldPass frequent flier loyalty program by the time he was 18 years of age.
Although other significant woes plagued the airline, Spira attributes the bombing of the Boeing 747-121 aircraft which operated as Pan Am flight 103 from Frankfurt to its intended final destination of Detroit over a residential area of Lockerbie in Scotland on Wednesday, December 21, 1988 — killing all 243 passengers and 16 members of the flight crew aboard the airplane as well as 11 people on the ground — as the possible final catalyst which led to the ultimate demise of the iconic airline.
According to Spira, “In the summer of 1991, Delta Air Lines acquired Pan Am’s East Coast shuttle and its routes to Europe and points east for $460 million. It also agreed to help Pan Am reorganize in bankruptcy court with an investment of $140 million in exchange for a 45% share in the company. The remainder of the once high-flying airline would be owned by its creditors.”
Along with the news in this article posted on Friday, July 12, 2013 that Delta Air Lines had recently celebrated the grand opening of a brand-new concourse costing $180 million at Terminal 4 — complete with a preview site in lower Manhattan — came the news of the closing of Terminal 3, which was otherwise known as the old Pan American World Airways Worldport building, which closed exactly 53 years after it opened and prompted emotional reactions from people who felt that the building should have been saved and preserved.
Although the demolition of the historic building itself was completed during the summer of 2014, select artifacts from the building were preserved. For example, the old DELTA AIR LINES sign from Terminal 3 is currently on display at the Delta Flight Museum in Atlanta, about which you can read more in detail in this article from Tuesday, June 17, 2014; as well as this article from Thursday, June 19, 2014.
Jonathan Spira is probably as much of a collector of authentic items from Pan Am as Michael Trager — who is the founder of TravelZork — is with regards to authentic items collected from Trans World Airlines. The two of them should get together and open a museum…
My memories of Pan American World Airways are limited to the shuttle it operated out of the Marine Air Terminal at LaGuardia Airport in New York for hourly flights to Boston and Washington in the District of Columbia during the final last years of the existence of the airline; so I really have few stories to relate — as you can see in the photograph at the top of this article, I still have my luggage tags and coupon books as well as other items — but I would certainly be interested in reading of your thoughts and experiences as a passenger of Pan Am, if you have any to share in the Comments section below, which would be a nice way to commemorate the ceasing of operations of Pan American World Airways 25 years ago today on Wednesday, December 4, 1991…