Pan Am memorabilia Pan American Airways
Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

25 Years Ago Today, Pan Am Ceased Operations

“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.

Pan American World Airways was founded on Monday, March 14, 1927 and remained in business for greater than 61 years. The brand still technically exists in some form; although some people questioned greater than eight years ago whether it was going out of business.

Delta Air Lines

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…

…but Jonathan Spira does offer a nicely succinct article dedicated to Pan American Airways; and as FlyerTalk member jspira, he encourages you to “contribute your thoughts and reminiscences of Pan Am, The World’s Most Experienced Airline” in this discussion posted on FlyerTalk.

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…

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

  1. I was a travel agent when Pan Am shut down, and it was an awful time all around. I was in Miami, and our small agency was a huge seller of Pan Am. We had seen the writing on the wall, the same as so many others, that bad changes were coming, but it was still a bitter pill to swallow. We felt just awful for all of the poor people who were suddenly out of work.
    Ironically, despite remembering that time vividly, what I remember most are all of the great experiences that I had with Pan Am. According to my mother, whom I had never known to lie to me, I flew on the inaugural 747 commercial flight. My first memory of flying was on a Pan Am 747 flight. My first time sitting upstairs in a plane. Flying solo to Europe. The thrill of flying into Berlin when the wall was still there. And so many more.
    There were many professional memories that stick with me as well. A travel agent familiarization trip to Freeport in Summer with no a/c while we were wearing suits. The many, many times that Pan Am would grant a waiver for a client when no other airline would. A hangar party in MIA at the old National Airlines hangar, where I got to see commercial planes up close and from a different perspective. The sheer professionalism of so many of their people.
    Whenever I visit my old hometown, I try to visit an ocean side place called Scotty’s Landing. It’s a nice place with all outdoor seating and a relaxed atmosphere. A short distance away is Miami city hall. If you look at the city hall building, you can still make out the winged globes that were long the symbol of Pan Am. The building was their old headquarters, and the flying boats would leave from there to crisscross the Americas. A nice bit of nostalgia.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts, experiences and memories, Christian.

      I enjoyed reading what you wrote — and I learned some cool trivia and facts in the process.

    1. I did not know about that book, Jordan.

      Thank you for posting the link — and I hope you thoroughly enjoy the book.

    1. I was a passenger on exactly one round trip PEOPLExpress flight from Newark to Chicago sometime during the last years of its original iteration, Nick @ Personal Finance Digest — but I have no memorabilia from that flight; and I have little recollection of my experience.

      I have written articles about the second iteration of PEOPLExpress, which is also now defunct:

      Have you flown as a passenger on the original PEOPLExpress?

      1. No, I just have vague recollections of my parents taking a cheap flight or two with them, plus there was a reference to that airline on a Simpsons flashback episode where Homer Simpson was describing the year 1985 and said “People Express introduced a generation of hicks to air travel”. That is the full extent of my People Express knowledge.

        1. D’oh!

          I did not pay for my lone round trip flight, Nick @ Personal Finance Digest. All I had to do was be a passenger; which is why my recollection of it is so vague.

  2. Brian, thanks for the mention. My TWA “obsession” still continues to this day. I would like to say that I have the “world’s largest” collection of TWA menus. Though, there is probably someone out there who beats me.

    1. We just missed a milestone, baccarat_guy.

      Four days ago — on Thursday, December 1, 2016 — was exactly 15 years which have elapsed since Trans World Airlines officially ceased operations.

      This sounds like a good time to post a similar retrospective article pertaining to TWA — better late than never, I suppose…

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