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Pan Am Innovations: Creating Pleasant Airline Travel

Post contributed by Leah Tams, Pan Am CLIR Grant Intern

With the outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent implementation of travel restrictions, social distancing, and quarantines, one of the industries being significantly affected is the airline industry. How airlines and the larger travel industry will recover from current events remains to be seen, but we can look back at the history of Pan American Airways (Pan Am) to see how they introduced innovations in order to overcome contemporary challenges and appeal to American travelers.

Advertisement for Pan Am’s Club Lounge, 1949.

A couple of Pan Am’s earlier innovations (late 1940s to early 1950s) in passenger service between the continental U.S. and other places—predominantly Hawaii, the Caribbean, and Europe—was the introduction of “Sleeperette Service” and “Club Lounges” on Boeing 377 flights (more popularly known as Pan Am’s Stratocruisers, specifically “The President” or “El Presidente” service). Pan Am’s Sleeperette Service featured large, comfortable armchair seats during the daylight portion of a flight, and at night the seats converted to bed-length compartments, complete with curtains for passenger privacy. Also available on Boeing 377 flights was Pan Am’s “Club Lounge,” which was located on the lower deck of the airplane. The Club Lounge was an informal place where passengers could congregate, socialize, and order “anything from a demi-tasse to a tall cold one.” In an era where airline travel still remained far more time-consuming and uncomfortable than it is today, these innovations from Pan Am were instrumental in creating comfortable environments and positive experiences for its passengers.

Before and after the flight, Pan Am endeavored to make flying as convenient as possible for its customers. One way in which they tried to accomplish this was with the construction of the Pan Am Terminal, later renamed the Worldport, at JFK Airport. The terminal had a large, saucer-like roof that extended far beyond the building and allowed aircraft to be parked underneath it. The impetus behind this design was to bring the plane to the passenger, thus creating proximity and convenience for Pan Am’s travelers.

Pan Am’s Worldport terminal at JFK airport.

Another innovation that Pan Am introduced to make travel more convenient was its helicopter flights. In 1965 they partnered with New York Airways to provide helicopter service between the Pan Am Building (now the MetLife Building) in Manhattan and JFK Airport in Queens. Later, Newark Airport was also added to this rotation. Despite the convenience that the helicopter service added for some passengers, Pan Am stopped these flights in the late 1970s after a series of fatal crashes on the route.

In the 1980s, Pan Am debuted its WorldExpress program, which allowed their passengers to bypass the hassles that came with connecting flights. Pan Am advertised WorldExpress as “One Ticket. One Check-In. One Baggage Claim. To The World,” and they made sure that connecting flights for their passengers were “just steps away, not terminals away.” Pan Am’s WorldExpress program thus strove to make airline travel as easy and convenient as possible for its passengers by eliminating some of the logistical barriers that continue to make travel difficult today.

Advertisement for Pan Am’s “Weatherproof Vacation” insurance, 1970s.

After creating good airline experiences, of course, came the actual vacation or occasion for travel. While we would probably all agree that the post-flight experience is completely out of airlines’ hands, in the 1970s Pan Am decided to team up with an insurance agency and guarantee its passengers a pleasant post-flight experience. In 1971 Pan Am introduced the “Weatherproof Vacation,” which it accomplished through a partnership with the American Home Insurance Company. For an “attractive” premium, Pan Am’s passengers could purchase Vacation Weather Insurance. This insurance plan ensured that if Pan Am’s passengers experienced rain or otherwise adverse weather on their vacations, they could receive a portion of their expenditures back. With its global reach well established by the 1970s, the assurance of a pleasant vacation was an innovative way for Pan Am to ensure that its passengers’ positive experience extended beyond that of the flight.

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