Pan Am: America’s First International Airline

The first regularly-scheduled passenger airline in the world began in 1914, with seaplane service between the cities of Tampa and St Petersburg, Florida. But it wasn’t until 13 years later that the first regularly-scheduled international airline service in America was established, between the US and Cuba. This was Pan Am, an airline that would go on to become one of the biggest names in global air travel.


The original Pan Am Building, in Key West, Florida.

In 1917, when the US joined the First World War, a young man named Juan Trippe left his courses at Yale University, signed up for the US Navy, and asked for flight training. Although he got his pilot wings and was commissioned as an Ensign, the war ended before he could see any combat, and he returned to Yale. But when he graduated in 1921, his interest in aviation stayed with him. Raising money from his Yale friends, he formed the Long Island Airways Company, which flew charter flights in New York City. When that failed, Trippe invested into the Colonial Air Transport Company, which flew mail between Boston and New York. By 1927, he was once again ready for his own venture, and envisioned an airline flying regular service between Florida and Cuba–vacation spots for the rich and famous. Moving to Key West, he founded the Aviation Corporation of America.

Two other companies had already been formed with the same idea, but each of them lacked a crucial component. The Atlantic, Gulf and Caribbean Airways, founded by New York financier Richard Hoyt, had lots of money behind it, but had no airplanes and had not negotiated any landing rights in Cuba. Major Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, an Army officer who had been taught to fly by the Wright Brothers and would go on to command US bomber forces in World War II, had formed the Pan American World Airways and had already obtained rights to fly mail to Cuba, but he had no airplanes. And finally, Trippe’s Aviation Corporation of America had a plane–a Fairchild FC-2 seaplane–but no landing rights. In a joint venture, Trippe and Arnold agreed to let Pan American use the FC-2, and “Pan Am”, as it later became known, made its first international flight on October 19, 1927, delivering mail from Key West to Havana and back.

In March 1928, the US Government was offering a contract for airmail delivery across South America, and, seizing the chance, Trippe, Arnold and Hoyt merged all three of their companies to form the Aviation Corporation of the Americas, which became the operator of “Pan American World Airways”. Pan Am was awarded government contracts for mail delivery to Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Chile and Mexico. To ensure friendly relations, Trippe met frequently with dignitaries and heads of Latin American countries, and hired aviation hero Charles Lindbergh as a technical consultant. Pan Am quickly became the biggest overseas air carrier in the western hemisphere, buying up its competitors or driving them under. By the end of 1928, the company was big enough to enter the international passenger market, and its first regular international flight, from Miami to Belize to Nicaragua and then to Costa Rica, began on January 9, 1929. The flight took 56 hours and had two overnight stops.

In 1931, the airline opened several more air passenger routes, using the Sikorsky S-38 and S-40 “flying boat” seaplanes, which Pan Am named “Clippers”. The Sikorsky could carry 50 passengers for over 1000 miles between refuelings. Pan Am Clippers were soon flying between the US, Europe and South America. By 1934, the airline had built seaplane bases on the Pacific islands of Midway, Wake, and Guam, and Clipper service expanded across the Pacific (using larger Martin M-130 flying boats), with mail flights to Hong Kong beginning in 1935 and passenger service a year later. By 1937, Clippers were flying to Samoa and New Zealand. A round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Manila cost $1400 (the equivalent of over $23,000 today), and the trip took five days. In 1937, after two of the Martin M-130’s crashed, they were replaced by the Boeing B-314 seaplane, with a range over 3000 miles. The fleet of 25 Clippers made Pan Am the premiere international airline in the world.

But despite its impressive technical successes, Pan Am was facing financial trouble, and Trippe was briefly replaced as CEO in 1939.

By this time, the company was also realizing that seaplanes were becoming obsolete, and that land-based four-engined “airliners” would be the future of air travel. The Pan Am Clippers began to be replaced by Boeing 307 Stratoliners. Capable of flying at 20,000 feet (above most bad weather), the 307 was the first passenger airliner to have pressurized passenger cabins. Pan Am bought the first six Stratoliners to be built, and its competitor Trans World Airlines (TWA) bought the next five. But then the US entered World War II, the Boeing 307 was redesigned as the C-75 cargo transport, and Pan Am found itself flying cargo for the US Army during the war, and its Clipper bases transformed into military airfields. (Among the pilots who flew Clipper seaplanes for the US military during the war was Gene Roddenberry, the future creator of Star Trek).

After the Japanese surrender, air travel replaced ocean liners as the method of choice for trans-oceanic trips, and a number of airlines began competing for the US-to-Europe routes. For the next ten years, Pan Am would compete with American, United, Braniff, TWA, and BOAC, as passenger aircraft became larger and more sophisticated.

In 1958, Pan Am became the first airline to fully embrace the jet age, when it purchased the Boeing 707 and the Douglas DC-8 for its overseas service. Then in 1970, Pan Am began the introduction of the new generation of wide-body jets, introducing the Boeing 747.

By the 1970’s, however, Pan Am’s star had begun to decline. Economic downturn and rising fuel costs crippled air travel, as deregulation, begun under Carter and carried further by Reagan, led to cutthroat price competition in the industry. At first, Pan Am tried to stay alive by expanding, purchasing National Airlines in 1980, but through the rest of the 1980’s it operated at a loss and started selling off assets. In 1990, it sold its lucrative London hub to United Airlines. By December 1991, Pan Am was dead, and filed for bankruptcy. (That same year, both Midway Airlines and Eastern had also filed for bankruptcy.)

Today, the white clapboard building that served as the original Pan Am headquarters in 1927, in Key West, Florida, is a tourist bar and grill owned by Hollywood actress Kelly McGillis.


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