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Helen Davey

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Orphaned by Job Loss: Pan Am Soaring Downward

Posted: 02/19/10 11:58 AM ET

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.