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Orphaned by Job Loss: Pan Am Soaring Downward

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People often ask, "What happened to Pan Am?" It was the airline that rose the highest and had the farthest to fall. As you will see, there was not one single cause. Deregulation, politics, bad management, fuel prices, the introduction of the 747 that saturated the market, the inability of Pan Am to obtain domestic routes while "domestic" airlines were awarded international routes, and Pan Am's own legend, all worked against adapting to a radically changed airline world. For ten years my job was the best airline job in the world, but as circumstances began to change and Pan Am's decline became more evident, I unconsciously began preparing myself for its death, with a strong feeling of deja vu. I was beginning to feel that Daddy Pan Am was no longer protecting me (See "Orphaned By Job Loss," 1/14).

For the employees of Pan Am, severe turbulence began to follow short periods of smooth air. We were on a continual roller coaster ride, but few employees chose to quit. We loved Pan Am with a passion that is difficult to describe in these days of employees jumping from one company to the next, and we wanted desperately to do our part to help our company survive. For me, it echoed my own history of having a mortally ill father, reminding me of his doctor's dire predictions that he would die with his next heart attack, which he did, when I was only eight years old (See "Counting My People," 11/11). For years I was aware that Pan Am's situation was as fragile as my father's had been.

Moreover, what happened to us has surprising relevance today in this new world of corporate failures and mergers and acquisitions. For those of you who are in small family-owned businesses, or in the financial, publishing, entertainment, automotive, or countless other industries that are being impacted by the economic crisis, the story of the Pan Am employees who experienced this debacle nearly 20 years ago might illuminate some of the feelings you may be having.

As you'll recall, my first article in this series ended in 1968 when Juan Trippe unexpectedly gave up power as CEO and left Pan Am in the hands of men who didn't understand the new rules of the aviation world. The biggest blow of all came when the transpacific route case, which had been deliberated for more than a decade by the Civil Aeronautics Board, was finally decided, making it possible for domestic airlines to apply for Pan Am's international routes. The problem for us was that because Pan Am was considered to be an international airline, we continued to be denied domestic routes.

Under LBJ and Nixon, the route award process became purely political and the former "domestic" airlines, which contributed generously to political candidates, were generously rewarded with Pan Am's Pacific routes. Pan Am continued to stand by its policy of not paying bribes or contributing to political campaigns. The company's attitude was why should we have to buy the routes we pioneered and developed? Unfortunately, we paid a different kind of price: Pan Am became a political orphan.

Our next CEO, "Jeeb" Halaby, was a Kennedy Democrat who was not popular with LBJ. I remember feeling that he was trying very hard to bring Pan Am into the modern world, but our company was entrenched in doing things the way they had always been done by Trippe. Halaby wanted to be liked and therefore was perceived by veteran management people as not displaying enough inner steel. He was friendly and held heart- to-heart meetings with the flight attendants and passenger agents and mechanics. Halaby encouraged "sensitivity classes."Robert Gandt, author of Skygods: The Fall of Pan Am (1995), states, "At this the old hands were aghast....Sensitivity training at the airline of the Skygods? It was like teaching table manners to a tiger shark" (p.143).In The Chosen Instrument, an anguished Halaby calls Pan Am "an airline without a country," and describes it as being "locked in a shrinking box, with the top, bottom, and sides all closing in at once" (Bender,1982,p.517).

In 1969, Pan Am, always the innovator, was the first to begin flying the new 747 jumbo jets. Two and a half times the size of the 707's with a load capacity of 400 people, the 747 was Trippe's "baby." Recalling the era of the flying boats, his design for the 747 featured a winding staircase leading to an upstairs lounge. Trippe committed $600 million for 25 of them. Unwittingly, the 747 completely changed the world of air travel from an exciting and privileged experience, one for which passengers dressed in their finest clothes, to one of having to cope with disgruntled crowds of unprecedented size. Such a large airplane could never replicate the feeling of intimacy that could be achieved on a 707. Transatlantic travel reached a saturation point, and Pan Am planes were flying around half empty. The wealthiest people, unwilling to put up with mass transportation, drifted away and began to buy their own airplanes.

It was around this time that our Pan Am world became seriously threatened by Palestinian refugees who saw the airline as the flag-carrying symbol of America. I remember driving by their refugee camps in Beirut in the late 1960's, thinking it was the worst poverty I had ever seen, including that of Bangladesh, Haiti, and Paraguay. Gazing out of the bus window, a Pan Am captain commented that unless something was done about this problem, it would probably erupt on the world stage. Sure enough, a few months later it started to happen -- to us.

Most of these terrorist events received little media attention on purpose, in order to prevent copy-cat incidents, and most Americans were not aware of what was happening. Pan Am planes became targets for hijacking and bombs, including one 707 that was blown up on the tarmac in Rome. I had friends who were killed, and one friend who suffered such severe post traumatic stress that she was never the same. We began to have security guards on our flights. They were supposed to help the crew and passengers feel safer, but actually at times the idea of an armed guard was frightening all by itself. The security guards--customs agents who were hastily trained -- always sat in the same seat at the back of the plane and, of course, everyone knew who they were.

In one briefing, the security guard was careful to give the flight attendants instructions: if a passenger looked suspicious, write the guard a note on a menu and pretend to ask him what he wanted for dinner. Since our flights were all through the Middle East, it was hard to know exactly what he meant by "suspicious." When I observed one of the passengers looking severely agitated and sweating, I took the guard a menu on which I had written, "The passenger in 25B looks extremely anxious." I then dutifully asked him if he would like chicken or steak. He looked at me, bleary-eyed from jetlag, and without skipping a beat said, "I'll take the chicken."Back in the galley we flight attendants dissolved in hysterical laughter from nervousness at the ridiculousness of the situation.

Meanwhile, my personal life had changed. In 1968 during the Vietnam War, I met and fell in love with Skip, a fighter pilot based in Thailand. Thanks to Pan Am's schedules, I could fly a 10-day trip around the world to visit Skip, return to New York, and hop on an airplane to Thailand for my three weeks off. In what other job could I have had such a life? Flight attendants and pilots for Pan Am lived all over the world -- Paris, Tokyo, Rio, Sydney, Madagascar, Beirut --and anything was possible. Everybody was living an exciting life, which many employees describe as "magical."

As a "good" Air Force girlfriend I was expected not to worry too much about Skip's safety. If you are old enough to remember "The Six Million Dollar Man" on television, you might recall the beginning scene with an airplane in an inverted spin which recovers at the last moment. That was actual Air Force footage of my fiancé almost crashing. He was a lighthearted daredevil who required a fearless partner with a positive attitude. Who better than I, who as a child had always been waiting for her father to die?

When I visited Skip in Thailand, he would leave in the morning to go about the business of fighter pilots, and several times he came back with the news that a buddy had been shot down. When the news broke about the bombing in Cambodia, I was unable to get confirmation that he was safe for many days. Some of my carefully erected defenses against fear of loss were beginning to crumble.

In the early 1970's, I married Skip. We moved to Edwards Air Force Base where he became a test pilot, and I transferred to the Los Angeles Pan Am base. Pan Am was going through a very dark time on the West Coast; we were becoming threatened from inside the company by a series of crashes involving 707's flown by the senior "Skygods." The unthinkable was happening -- in Manila, in Papeete, in Pago Pago, and in Bali -- and an air of paranoia began to surface. Pan Am was crashing airplanes all over the islands of the Pacific. Those were my friends, and my colleagues, and the rest of us began to feel frightened and confused about the Skygods, these "ancient mariners" who were flying our airplanes.

I was on a layover in Delhi when my crew got the news of the crash in Bali, and we spent an agonizing 24 hours -- in those days before computers and cell phones and texting -- before we got word of who was killed. Slowly my idealization of the older pilots began to dissolve, and I realized only later that whenever I left home, I would say goodbye to my animals and loved ones, as if I might not be coming back. On the home front as well, I lived in unspoken dread that my husband would be killed doing his dangerous job of testing airplanes.

I have always felt that a flight attendant's most important function at work, besides safety, is to provide passengers with a sense of comfort and reassurance and a denial of the possibility of death. I imagined myself offering them "coffee, tea, or immortality," but now my own sense of trust was being severely tested. Heads began to roll as Pan Am was carefully scrutinized and many of the older pilots were forced to retire. Moreover, tough new standards were imposed, including the idea that the captain could no longer be the autocratic ruler of the cockpit. The new-hires, who had gradually grown more critical of the old Skygods, were at last able to voice their opinions. As a result of these new rules following the Bali crash, Pan Am never lost another airplane to a flying accident.

Brigadier General William Seawell was our next CEO. He brought a military bearing and an unwillingness to even speak directly to flight attendants when he flew. This was in sharp contrast to Juan Trippe's habit of introducing himself to each crew member and asking about their lives. A new attitude was being ushered in toward employees, and we could feel that somehow the company just didn't value us in the same way. The traditional Pan Am attitude of celebrating difference, and even eccentricity, began to be replaced by an insistence on conformity. His wife, "the Generaless," oversaw the redesigning of our flight attendant uniforms, and none of us was happy with the new look. "Seawell's tantrums came as a shock to staffers accustomed to the autocratic courtliness of Juan Trippe, the cordial coldness of Harold Gray, and the easy affability of Jeeb Halaby. It was like going to sleep with Snow White and waking up with Godzilla" (Gandt,1995,p.163). Seawell slashed jobs and furloughed employees. Our working conditions began to deteriorate, and our standard of living noticeably declined, but we held out the hope that if we all just worked harder that we could restore Pan Am to its former glory.

Then, in 1974, Pan Am was threatened by a new emergency--the fuel crisis. Because it was an international airline, Pan Am was forced to buy fuel at OPEC controlled prices, which had skyrocketed. Out of the blue, the Shah of Iran, who loved aviation and imagined Iran as a major player in world air commerce, was interested in buying Pan Am. Suddenly, Congress realized that Pan Am -- "the chosen instrument" -- was vital to our national interest because its' 747's were instantly available for military transport use. In every conflict since World War II, Pan Am had provided airplanes, crews, and facilities. Finally, ironically, we were once again being viewed as a national treasure. Luckily the deal fell through, because within four years the Shah was overthrown, and Iran-- America's formerly bedrock ally in the Middle East--became a mortal enemy. "Policymakers speculated grimly about a Pan American World Airways whose principal owner was the Ayatollah Khomeini" (Gandt, 1995, p.172).

Also in 1974, in an unprecedented move, an employee sponsored group called AWARE took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times detailing the inequities that Pan Am had been forced to endure. To the employees, this was family business, and much of what was happening wasn't "fair." For example, the Postal Department paid foreign airlines five times what it paid Pan Am for hauling the same U.S. mail. The U.S. Export-Import bank loaned money to "underdeveloped" countries like France, Japan, and Saudi Arabia at 6% interest, while Pan Am paid 12%.

Further, the domestic airlines now had rights to the international routes that we pioneered, while the foreign airlines were serving more cities in the United States than ever. And yet we had no rights to fly Pan Am passengers within our country. Pan Am also had to pay unreasonable landing fees overseas, while the U.S. granted foreign airlines nominal landing fees. For example, Pan Am was paying $4,200 to land a 747 in Sydney, and Qantas was paying $178 to land in Los Angeles. We all wondered who was looking out for us.

And so the employees of Pan Am -- not the usual pinstriped lawyers and professional lobbyists -- went to Washington to plead our case, while management stayed conspicuously absent. The campaign was nicknamed, "The Children's Crusade." Nobody had ever seen anything like it: the employees of a business passionately involved in trying to improve the treatment of their employer. Giant rallies were held on the Capitol steps, as well as a letter campaign, and visits from Pan Am employees to congressmen and senators. In the end, not very much changed, but miraculously Pan Am began to make money again, and lots of it. It looked like we were going to make it, until in a desperate attempt to attain "domestic" routes-- and pitted against Frank Borman of Eastern Airlines and Frank Lorenzo of Texas International in a bidding war -- Seawell bid twice the book value for National Airlines.

In hindsight, this was a debacle because deregulation- which would mean that any airline could fly domestically- was just around the corner. Nothing made sense as Seawell attempted to put the two mismatched airlines together. Our airplanes had different mechanical requirements, and National's routes ran north/south, instead of the east/west routes that we needed. Pan Am went from a smooth-running airline that could turn an aircraft around in thirty minutes to one that could take almost two hours. Passengers calling to book a flight to Melbourne would be routed to Melbourne, Florida, by former National employees, while those talking to Pan Am employees would be ticketed to Melbourne, Australia. No one could quite figure out what had possessed the General.

Even worse, the personalities of the two airlines were completely different and they clashed. National Airlines saw itself as a casual and folksy regional airline, while Pan Am saw itself as the glamorous, international "Queen of the Skies." "It was an audible culture shift. The dialect was changing from a Skygodly, Eastern, sometimes European, patrician inflection...to a crackerized twang" (Gandt,1995,p.201). Pan Am pilots referred, inaccurately, to National pilots as the "pig farmers," insinuating that they were good-ol'boys who drove pickup trucks and chewed tobacco. The National pilots, in retaliation, called the Pan Am pilots the "blue bloods," implying that Pan Amers were old and snooty and so inbred from no new blood for so long that they were a bit crazy.

National Airlines promoted their flight attendants in provocative ads like, "Hi. I'm Barbara. Fly me." Continental Airlines used the slogan, "We shake our tails for you." To Pan Am's credit, when they did decide to advertise, our slogan was, "Pan Am stewardesses know their way around the world better than most people know their way around the block." We flight attendants felt that the company enhanced our image instead of demeaning us in its advertising.

In the airline world, seniority is everything, because it determines your schedule, your vacations -- your quality of life. For pilots, it determines your salary, and when you are upgraded to Captain. Pan Am employees were enraged that the National employees were slotted into the seniority system so that many employees who had less actual employment time became more senior than the Pan Am people. Seawell, fearing that the National people would strike as they had a reputation of doing, decided to raise their salaries to Pan Am's level. The merging of the two companies resulted in Pan Am employees feeling that their "family" had been violated, and National employees felt like the hated step-siblings in a blended family.

When deregulation became law, domestic routes were available to everyone, and we all realized that, instead of purchasing National, we could have just bought planes and hired entry-level people. Pan Am never recovered from this mistake, and the dismantling of the once-magnificent airline began. Pan Am was now in even more serious trouble, and 1980 was the worst year in Pan Am's history. Having spent $374 million for National, and then continuing to run the tab up to nearly a billion dollars, General Seawell wiped out all of Pan Am's reserve funds and took the company into financial ruin. Sadly, he then decided to sell off Pan Am's "crown jewels," the renowned Pan Am building for $400 million and the famous Intercontinental Hotels Corporation for $500 million. Piece by piece, our Pan Am world was slipping away. In the end, Seawell retired "early" in 1981, but continued to receive compensation until Pan Am went out of business.

Each CEO that followed Juan Trippe gave me the helpless feeling that nobody really knew what they were doing. Slowly, but insidiously, the "perks" of my job were eroding, until by 1980, it no longer resembled the life I had known. Fewer flight attendants served more passengers, new-hires were no longer required to have college degrees and languages, layovers were shortened, and we had to work many more days a month with more arduous schedules. Most distressing for me, as well as our passengers, was the change in the quality of our service. The tools of our trade-- the flowers, crystal, and china--were replaced with plastic. Pan Am employees' feelings of pride were being replaced by an unfamiliar feeling of shame. In the press, Pan Am was often referred to as "financially troubled Pan Am." My own feeling of entitlement and my self-esteem, which was directly tied in with my identification with the "father" Pan Am, was being shaken to the core. I often felt depressed that my powerful, omnipotent father was once again fading away.

Because of short staffing and cutbacks, I also began to notice a change in attitude from the passengers toward the flight attendants. I understood that this was a result of the suffering of both the passengers and the employees. We seemed to have metamorphosed in passengers' eyes from gracious hostesses who were there to enhance their journey into dehumanized, invisible service providers. Because of the sheer number of passengers in relation to flight attendants, frustrated people began to ask for whatever they might need later in the flight instead of what they actually needed at the moment.

Landing in Sydney after a grueling 15- hour nonstop flight, passengers would say, "So are you going back to Los Angeles right now?" Or after 5 or 6 hours of serving passengers, when we finally sat down to eat our meals, people would ask, "Oh, you get to eat on this flight?" And I remember a notice on our bulletin board from management saying that it had come to their attention that flight attendants were arriving at their destinations looking exhausted and rumpled. The message at the end directed us, "Don't look tired." Flight attendants felt that we were being treated by management like recalcitrant children. But despite this changing atmosphere -- one that uncannily predicted the future of air travel-- we clung to the hope that Pan Am's glory days could be restored.

Meanwhile, my personal life was reflecting the chaos of my professional life. I don't know exactly when it was that I decided I had a right to feel negative feelings, too--but suddenly all hell broke loose. Tired of feeling like I was being a flight attendant 24 hours a day, I began to have negative emotions that I had not allowed myself to experience, perhaps ever. I became restless and dissatisfied with life on an Air Force base, and the adaptations I had made. Like Pan Am, I felt I was in a box that was shrinking on all sides. My husband and I had grown apart, and I couldn't see myself living a military life, which felt constraining to me, for the rest of my days. Skip and I eventually divorced, and I then understood that I needed to make other changes as well.

My college aptitude tests had all recommended that I become a psychologist, and I always knew that I would someday. I wanted to fly and travel when I was young and have a serious career when I was older -- but how? I began therapy with a psychoanalyst, and I was completely intrigued with the process. To have all of my feelings - not just my positive ones - heard and accepted and understood was a luxury I had never expected to find. I realized that this could be another profession, like flying had been for me, that would never feel like "just a job." I envisioned that while my Pan Am days had been full of journeys and adventures out in the world, I could balance that experience by being more involved in inward journeys, both my own and those of others. I knew no one in the field of psychology other than my analyst, but I became more and more sure that I had found my new path. My plan was to slowly go to graduate school while I continued to fly.

By the time C. Edward Acker, a financier and CEO of Air Florida, took over Pan Am's helm, labor unrest had surfaced and we no longer had trust in yet another CEO's leadership. It felt to us that the company's attitude had gone from valuing us to a blatant, "You're just lucky you have a job." Acker loved to tinker with Pan Am's route schedules. Unbelievably, Pan Am Flight One and Pan Am Flight Two, our famous round-the-world flights, were discontinued, as were the more exotic destinations such as Belem, Monrovia, Keflavik, and Pago Pago.

Gone were the days when the crew could arrive in Lisbon and decide as a group whether to stay in the city or go to the beautiful seaside resort of Estoril. Or when the crew would get to Tahiti and decide if we preferred the magnificent Intercontinental Hotel, or to take the boat over to Morea instead. By now we understood that much of what we had been lucky enough to experience was gone, but we were enraged that Pan Am management was blaming labor for what we all could see clearly was terrible management. It was all slipping away, and it was painful.

I never would have been able to imagine myself walking a picket line, striking against the airline I loved, but in March of 1985, there we all were -- pilots, flight attendants, mechanics, and clerical workers -- refusing to go to work, and taking the risk of being fired. By now it was clear that Pan Am employees on all levels were receiving compensation far lower than industry standards, but it wasn't money that had pushed us to that point. It was really all about dignity. The strike produced little more than a chance for the employees to collectively speak out. We received terrifying telegrams announcing that we were fired, but after making more concessions regarding salary and work rules, we went back to work. Yet, as we were walking the picket lines, we had no idea what Ed Acker had in store for us the very next month.

On a life-changing day in April of 1985, I walked into my analyst's waiting room where the newspaper was open to the front page. The headlines screamed, "Pan Am Agrees to Sell United Its Pacific Unit." As with the assassination of JFK or Martin Luther King, every Pan Am employee can tell you where they were when they heard the news. In a blunder almost as damaging as the purchase of National Airlines, Acker decided to sell Pan Am's Pacific routes to United for $750 million. These routes had belonged to Pan Am for 50 years and had always been profitable. I realized that one-half of Pan Am's world was going to be frittered away, with no plan for our future that really made sense. I was heart-broken. What had happened to our once glorious airline that had valued its employees and made us feel secure? Who were these CEO's that received huge compensation and "golden parachutes" for destroying the company that we all loved? Now, twenty years later, it's happening again to companies all over the world.

I understand now that my memory immediately following the sale of the Pacific routes is very hazy; it felt much like the traumatic time after my father's death. I was trying desperately to accept the fact that Pan Am as I knew it was gone. We flight attendants were given the option of going to work for United, but that was never anything I wanted to consider. Robotically, I went about the task of preparing my house to sell, and without even knowing it, I had made the decision to leave. The Pan Am employees were in the trenches together, doing anything to save our dying company. We were the "real Pan Am family," not top management who came and went. Those people who accepted employment with United did so because they were fearful that Pan Am wouldn't survive, and most of them felt extremely ambivalent about abandoning our beloved company. As the employees going to United sadly took their leave, the family was splintered and the remaining Pan Amers began to feel that they were the only ones who were truly loyal.

The grandeur of Pan Am, like that of my early family, had become shattered as well. In early 1986 I walked away from the Pan Am hangar in shock, numb with the realization that I had just handed in my ID card, my passport to the whole world and to my Pan Am family. My sense of belonging in the world was once again profoundly shaken, but luckily I had my analyst to help steady me; otherwise, I never could have withstood the separation anxiety and depression that flooded me, as if I were again 8 years old and my father had just died. For 20 years I had not spent more than a month in succession on the same continent, in the same time zone, or in the same season. Now, everywhere I turned, there I was and it was impossible to run away from myself. My world had once again crumbled.

Profoundly mourning my loss of Pan Am, I found it painful to drive by the airport and see the airplanes that represented the family to which I no longer belonged. I had started my Master's program in Clinical Psychology and sat in classes marveling at how different everyone else's reality seemed from mine. I felt a sense of estrangement that I later learned was characteristic of being in a traumatized state. For 20 years I had been surrounded by people with whom I had a strong identification; after all, we even dressed identically. I realized I didn't know how to live life on the ground, because it had so long ago been left behind. I had a lot to learn. Every day, I experienced what seemed like a million tiny losses -- the people, the places, the experiences, the family atmosphere, the shopping, the excitement of boarding a plane on one side of the globe, and arriving hours later on a different continent -- in short, I missed my Pan Am world.
Instead, I was now having to adapt to the "normal" world. Even the mention of a "9 to 5" routine is anathema to those who fly. The idea of doing more or less the same thing day after day at the same time was something I was unsure that I could master. I had never developed daily habits. For example, I always cleaned my home thoroughly before a trip, but not every day. I was so used to turning my days and nights around that going to bed at the same time every night seemed impossible to me. I felt humiliated when a new friend of mine in school commented on my habit of wearing the same thing a few days in a row. After years of wearing a uniform and the same layover clothes, I did not feel the prohibition of never wearing something twice.

I knew my way around my Pan Am world very well, but I didn't know much about Los Angeles, despite having lived there for years. I felt disoriented. To have to go into stores at the same hours as everyone else, or to be stuck in freeway traffic , struck a blow to my feelings of entitlement that were in sharp contrast to my feelings of smallness and incompetence. I felt that I was striking out all on my own, except for the support of my analyst, and when I was feeling particularly afraid and vulnerable, I would sleep with a book on Pakistan that he had given me.

One of the exercises I had to do for my Master's classes was to draw a self- portrait. The result was telling: I looked as if I were suspended in air, with my toes pointed downward. You really couldn't tell front from back, or whether I was coming or going. It reflected my feeling of being lost. Being out of the air made me feel "up in the air," and I was so surprised to see that one of my classmates actually drew the ground. It took much more time for me to begin to feel grounded.

The clinic where I was interning with patients was quite shabby; the carpets were filthy and the window panes in my consulting room were broken. I'd think to myself, "Well, this isn't Paris, but you have to start somewhere." I would often call upon images of my grandfather, who had not learned to read and write until he was 21, and didn't achieve financial success until he was in his 50's. Fortunately for me, I had begun a new life just before the darkest days for Pan Am. I went through a rocky two years, but when I began to wave at the Pan Am planes as they passed overhead, I knew that I was better.

While I was learning and growing in my new field, I remained deeply concerned about my Pan Am family, which was going through agonizing anxiety regarding the future of the company. I volunteered to conduct seminars for Pan Am flight attendants in Los Angles, New York, and Miami. I called it "Fear of NOT Flying," in order to encourage those who felt there was no life beyond Pan Am. Once again, the company had a new CEO, Tom Plaskett, who seemed genuinely concerned about the company and its employees. What a breath of fresh air! Pan Am was slowly beginning to make money again, and employees dared to hope that they would survive.

Instead, the unimaginable happened. On December 21, 1988, Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.....

NEXT: PART III: Trauma Revisited and the Voices of Pan Am.