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Orphaned By Job Loss: The Death of Pan Am

05/31/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

December 21, 1988, the day that Pan Am Flight 103 exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, has been called "the day that the heart of Pan American died" (Skygods: the Fall of Pan Am, Gandt, 1995, p. 271). The nightly image on television of the airplane's blue and white nose section lying broken and bleeding in that Scottish meadow symbolized for me what was left of my beloved Pan Am. I had flown on that airplane many times, and I loved its name - Clipper Maid of the Seas. It evoked the spirit of romance and adventure that had always characterized Pan Am. Seeing its wreckage broke my heart.

Day after day, expert after expert was interviewed on television, and at first they blamed the tragedy on the age of the Pan Am 747's. Never mind that this airplane had just gone through an expensive six-month retrofit to qualify it for the Air Force's Civil Reserve fleet. In my opinion, there wasn't any way that this airplane was going to suffer a structural failure. The fact is, Pan Am 103 was meant to disappear somewhere over the Atlantic where it would never be found and no one would ever know for sure what happened. Because it was delayed on the runway at Heathrow for half an hour due to heavy traffic, the airplane exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland.

It was five days before the real story came out, and newscasters announced what we employees knew in our hearts to be true: Clipper Maid of the Seas was destroyed by cold-blooded terrorists -- 243 passengers, 16 crew members, and 11 people on the ground suffered a nightmarish death. Only a fortunate few in the airplane had died within the first three seconds of the explosion. Most "spent the last 46 seconds of their lives trapped in the belly of a raging beast...whirling, twisting, plunging in darkness toward the earth...their screams lost in the vastness of the night sky" (Gandt, 1995, p. 274).

Suddenly, the newscasters shifted blame onto Pan Am's security system, and all of the "experts" expounded upon their theories for months. The horrible scene at Lockerbie seeped into the consciousness of potential passengers worldwide. No one wanted to risk being a target of terrorism toward Americans, or to fly on "old airplanes," or risk being the victim of an inept security system. This was not about loyalty or logic: it was about fear. After 9/11 the national psyche shifted, and now everyone understands that terrorists are formidable foes who should bear the brunt of the blame for their murderous acts. But in 1988, the criticism of Pan Am became the final nail in the coffin, and a half billion dollars in potential revenue for the airline disappeared overnight.

Pan Am struggled on until August of 1991, when Delta Airlines bought what was left of the once mighty airline. Psychological stress overwhelmed the Pan Am organization at every level, and there were reports of several suicides. The Wall Street Journal stated that "Such upheaval would be painful for employees at any company. But for Pan Am people, the experience has been especially traumatic because the carrier fell from such heights....Many workers report that they began to suffer severe emotional distress.....The sense of loss and heartbreak at Pan Am is only amplified by the memory of what it once was."

Delta interviewed and hired Pan Am flight attendants and pilots, but not by the seniority system traditionally employed. However, there still remained a small beam of hope for the Pan Am employees who didn't want to work for--or for whatever reason were not hired by--Delta. A new, smaller Pan Am would remain in business.

The "restructured" Pan Am II, which Delta promised to fund, would be a vastly scaled down airline, based in Miami, which would fly only to Latin America and the Caribbean. Seventy-five hundred diehard Pan Am employees breathed a sigh of temporary relief and made their plans to relocate to Miami. At least, they could still call themselves "Pan Am family" and they, as always, would find a way to make it work.

But then, the final nightmare: on December 4, 1991, Delta Airlines, amidst great controversy and anger, suddenly decided to pull out of the deal, and Pan Am ceased to exist that very day. Operations were closed, buildings were shut down, airplanes were brought home and parked, employees were told to go home, and the final curtain came down, leaving the remaining Pan Am employees stunned and jobless overnight. Pan American World Airways was gone forever, dead at the age of 64, which I later realized was the same age as my father when he died.

Those heartbroken and traumatized employees who had chosen to remain with Pan Am II--and "went down with the ship"-- became the true orphans of Pan Am. These veteran airline employees could try to find jobs at other airlines, which were scarce, or they could struggle to accept the fact that Pan Am was gone and, along with it, the airline careers that had defined their lives. In Death of An American Dream, a video about the Pan Am story, Captain Mark Pyle describes his feelings about flying the last Pan Am flight into Miami on that painful December day. He was informed about the tragic news in flight and was asked to do a low pass over the runway, with fire trucks and water cannons saluting the historic occasion. There wasn't a dry eye anywhere.

On the video, Captain Pyle says:"She [Pan Am] was like an elegant, majestic lady, who, in the years of her glory, was very beautiful...and then...when she wasn't so beautiful any more, she was put up at auction, similar to a slave...and...stripped of her clothing...one garment at a time, the Pacific, the Pan Am building, the Atlantic, etc. until she stood there naked....Before they could sell the final piece, she simply died of shame and humiliation...an elegant lady now of history...what a grand lady she was in her time!"

As for the employees who had gone to United or Delta, many felt that they had become the unwanted step-siblings in a strange new airline environment. Possessing an undying sense of pride regarding Pan Am's history, they all say that they were grateful for a paycheck and a sense of greater security, but almost every one of them reports that they felt that their work became "just a job." They felt no love for or sense of belonging to their new companies. Many of them suffered severe depression for years, and some describe feelings of guilt for having "abandoned ship."

As for my life, since I had left Pan Am in 1986, I was struggling with feelings of grief about what was happening to the company, and I had an intense need to find another life that felt as rewarding and challenging as my years with Pan Am. I found the perfect solution for me. My feelings of pride about the historical accomplishments of my Davey family, along with my identification with Pan Am and all of its firsts, led me straight into the world of psychoanalysis, which to me was "the Pan Am" of the therapy world.

Just as my grandfather was opening up new frontiers in saving the environment, and Juan Trippe was opening up new frontiers for aviation, Sigmund Freud was opening up new frontiers for understanding human emotional life. I was drawn to its historical significance and fascinated by the contemporary innovations in psychoanalytic thinking. I also valued the depth, breadth, and scope of the training. There was no question that the training was rigorous, time-consuming, and expensive, but it felt like the perfect fit for me. I didn't know how I was going to afford it, but I just knew from my life with Pan Am that I was capable of incredibly hard work and long hours, and further, had an ability to relate to people. And luckily, I had a house that I could sell to help me finance my new adventure.

While people warned me that psychoanalysis was "another sinking ship," and that nobody practiced psychoanalysis anymore, I knew better. I remember a trip from New York to Paris during which I spent long hours crossing the Atlantic, sharing a jumpseat with a psychoanalyst from Manhattan. He told me all about his life and work, and he seemed to feel a passion for his work that felt similar to how I felt about mine. I never forgot our conversation, and without knowing it, this gentle man had guided me toward my future path.

I was also told that there was so much competition among therapists on the West Side of Los Angeles there was no way to have a successful practice there. I thought, "Oh yeah? Watch me." Pan Am had toughened me in ways that echoed the "everything-is-possible" attitude that I had learned from my early years with my father. With enough determination I knew I could go from Pan Am stewardess to successful psychoanalyst.

As is customary for a new psychoanalyst, I sought out mentors to help guide me with my patients, and in a stroke of luck, in 1992 I began supervision with famed Los Angeles psychoanalyst Dr. Robert Stolorow. Following the unexpected death of his wife, this was a time of profound grief and self-exploration that set Stolorow on a path toward new insights about trauma, culminating in his book, Trauma and Human Existence. At the same time that I was consulting with him and writing about the trauma to Pan Am employees, I was also witnessing up close the personal devastation of Stolorow's life. His developing ideas about trauma just seemed to seep into my pores, reanimating my own early experience of traumatic loss.

There are three main ideas in Stolorow's book on trauma that I have found extremely useful in analyzing my own life and those of my patients: (1) the concept of retraumatization, (2) what Stolorow calls the absolutisms of everyday life, and (3) the importance of being able to find a relational home for our feelings of loss and grief. I will explain and demonstrate these ideas in the interviews that I will share with you in Part IV.

I chose to write my dissertation, A Psychoanalytic Exploration of the Fall of Pan American World Airways, as a way to deal with my own feelings of trauma. As I conducted the interviews for this dissertation, I heard echoes of my own feelings again and again. I wanted to be able to capture the essence of our loss, and to find a way to describe the "soul" of Pan Am in a way that would make sense to readers who had not experienced it. We employees all felt it, as if Pan Am had a life of its own -- an organic quality -- almost a living, breathing entity. I wanted to expand my interviews to include employees from every strata of the company. If I had experienced such a profound attachment to Pan Am, what about everybody else? What in their history led them to Pan Am, and what did the company mean to them? How could I help them?

From my own experience and from my interviews with flight attendants, pilots, management, mechanics, and ground personnel, I realized that the common denominator in our feelings about Pan Am was that it was a family. I have never spoken with any Pan Am employee who didn't feel that sense of familial connectedness. I wondered about how such bonding developed and continued, even in the worst of times, and what made Pan Am unique? How did this company manage to imbue its former employees with such a strong sense of connectedness that its legacy endures even now, 20 years after its demise, and compels us to continue to connect through clubs and organizations and reunions that refuse to let the Pan Am family die?

In answering this question, I first called upon my personal memories as a flight attendant. As the Pan Am jingle went, "Pan Am has a place of its own. You call it the 'world.' We call it 'home.'" The Pan Am blue ball emblem was a perfect representation of the scope of the world in which "our family" lived. When we would leave home base, Pan Am crews, consisting of pilots and flight attendants, were often expected--and trusted--to make our own decisions, and there was very little supervision. Each Pan Am crew became a "family within the family."

Because we were spread all over the globe in countries that didn't speak English, we bonded in the way that people do when they need each other. I remember that one of the instructors for our "sensitivity classes" said that he had never seen such exquisite teamwork among employees in any other company. We felt like ambassadors to the world, and were often the first Americans that people had met.

At the same time that we had little supervision, I felt very protected in our Pan Am world; many people had our backs. For example, when we started to fly to Moscow, on one trip my fellow flight attendants and I wanted to go to the Russian Circus, which was a long cab ride from the hotel. The Pan Am station manager in Moscow explained to us in great detail how to get there and back to the hotel. However, following the performance, as we stepped out into the freezing December night air, there on the steps stood the station manager, all decked out in his fur coat and big Russian fur hat. "I couldn't sleep," he said, "because I had to know you got home safely." That was the Pan Am family.

And so, as I was thinking about the nature of the "family" feeling among employees, I discovered three themes that continually surfaced. In clinical terms, I called these themes (1) shared grandiosity (2) idealizing attachment, and (3) expansiveness. I will briefly explain these three ideas, but they will become more clear when I let the voices of Pan Am speak for themselves.

Shared grandiosity is when a person elevates and enhances his or her sense of self by being part of a group, in this case, being part of Pan Am. "They're great, and I'm part of them, so I'm great too." When there is disappointment in this area (like when Pan Am began to fail), it can be accompanied by a cutting off of emotion. Such "fallen," deflated grandiosity can be followed by shame, humiliation and sometimes by anger.

Idealizing attachment is when the idealized other (e.g. Pan Am) is looked to for security, parental care, and protection. Disappointment when this attachment is severed can lead to depression, sadness, and mourning, as well as a great sense of loss and disillusionment. As I witnessed with Pan Am employees, there was often a sense of betrayal, signifying disappointed expectations and hopes, which can lead to anger or depression.
The third form of familial attachment is expansiveness. Just as the word sounds, it has to do with an enlarging of one's scope and experience. All 21 of the employees I interviewed felt that Pan Am had indeed helped to expand their knowledge of the world beyond all expectations. Various employees describe their experience with Pan Am as "a love affair," "magical," and "a dream-come-true."

Of those 21 employees, 16 of them showed strong attachment in all three dimensions; in other words, they saw Pan Am as being symbolic family, carrying deep psychological meaning. Only 5 showed slight or no evidence of shared grandiosity and idealizing attachment. A further finding was that the extent and nature of the employees' attachment to Pan Am determined how traumatized they were as a result of its fall. Finally, of the 11 people who were severely traumatized by the fall of Pan Am, 9 reported earlier traumas in their personal lives that I believe contributed to how they experienced the company's fall. These are the employees who experienced severe retraumatization.

Throughout these interviews, I was privy to the deep feelings of devastation of the employees, but also to their pride in the company and gratitude toward it. Moreover, I was able to study how they adapted to their new lives. I learned that each person's identification with Pan Am was unique, and like my story, was often based on their individual personal history. The greater the trauma in their formative years, the harder it was for a person to deal with the potential loss of identity, income, and lifestyle. To illustrate this, in my next blog I will present excerpts from taped interviews with two employees, using their exact wording. They both made the choice to stay with Pan Am II rather than to take Delta's offer of employment, and thus became what I consider to be "true orphans" of Pan Am. Their clarion voices are more poignantly evocative of the trauma that many Pan Am employees felt than anything I could write myself.

Next: Part IV: Orphaned By Job Loss: Voices of Pan Am

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