05/13/2010 10:17 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Orphaned by Job Loss: Voices of Pan Am

In this, the last blog of my series (Orphaned By Job Loss) I hope to leave my readers with more understanding of the possible impact of traumatic loss of a company on employees. Many people worldwide are now having to face the reality of job loss that former Pan Amers have been dealing with for almost twenty years now. In my previous blog, I gave some broad brush strokes about my doctoral research in which I interviewed 21 employees from every strata of Pan Am.

I found that each person's attachment to and identification with the company was unique, and like my story (Helen Davey: Counting My People), was often based on his or her individual personal history. I also learned that the greater the trauma in the formative years, the more severe the experience of traumatic loss in reaction to the death of Pan Am. However, every single employee I've ever known personally or interviewed for my dissertation described Pan Am as a "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 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."

The following two interviews were conducted with former Pan Am employees whom I have known personally. As you will see, they both chose to stay with the smaller Pan Am II that was to be funded by Delta, and they "went down with the ship." Thus, these interviews represent the true orphans of Pan Am.


Elizabeth was a flight attendant who early on in her career began to feel extremely anxious about her employment with Pan Am, which had become like family to her. She was always worried that something would happen that could take that family away: "I didn't want to lose that world that I had become part of. I always felt like Pan Am had a special family bond going. We felt connected and special, and maybe we radiated something special. It was a good feeling, and I haven't had that same feeling since I left."

Unfortunately, because she was so junior in seniority, Elizabeth was furloughed during the fuel crisis of 1974. Forced due to financial hardship to leave New York City and go home to her parents, Elizabeth waited anxiously to be recalled. As I came to understand, she was experiencing severe dread in anticipation of more bad things to come. When she returned to work, Elizabeth couldn't deny her feeling of helplessness about the company; as a result she felt the need to be eternally vigilant.

She tried to counteract her feelings of helplessness, the hallmark of trauma, by becoming compulsive: "I was always in fear after I came back from furlough that something would happen to Pan Am and I'd lose my job. I would knock myself out on that airplane to try and woo passengers to fly Pan Am and to be nice and to just do everything in my power to help the company make it. I felt like I was on an individual mission to do that. I subscribed to The Wall Street Journal and spent hours clipping articles about Pan Am and what the analysts were saying. As time went on, I just felt less secure...and you were just waiting for the ax to fall."

A traumatizing event like the loss of one's company is made worse for some people because it represents a retraumatization, a repetition of a childhood history of loss or pain that leaves them more vulnerable. Examples of such childhood trauma include the early death of a parent or family member, early separation from loved ones through divorce or tragedy, alcoholism, drug addiction, or mental illness in the family; also any form of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.

Retraumatization happens most often when there is a close replication of the original trauma, such as a loss of the way of life as one knew it, loss of a sense of power, loss of a sense of safety, loss of a sense of innocence, or loss of a sense of control. When a similar traumatic event in the present occurs, it brings back the same old feelings, such as terror, horror, shock, panic, or helplessness. Retraumatization is the experience of a painful part of your life that feels like it's happening all over again. In my case, when Pan Am began to fail, I returned once more to those frightening days of my childhood when my world collapsed and everything seemed so uncertain.

Elizabeth had come to depend upon being part of Pan Am as if it were tantamount to survival, and intensely idealized the company as her salvation (idealizing attachment). Her self-esteem was dependent on an ongoing sense of being part of this great organization (shared grandiosity) and she vividly describes her dread: "I just felt insecure. I felt that I didn't know what I would do with my life if I didn't have Pan Am. I think I received a real boost in self-esteem by working for Pan Am. I had heard that Pan Am was really the ultimate airline to work for because you were able to travel everywhere....and I had heard this funny rumor that some men purposely flew Pan Am searching for wives because they felt that the Pan Am stewardess was a cut above, and just seemed something glamorous. Wow! It was an elite group.... When I began flying I heard that there were over 100,000 applicants the year that I was hired! I just thought they got me because I just finished college and I spoke French, and so I didn't think I was any great shakes. I felt very lucky to be able to join the group, but then when I found out there were so many who were interviewed...then you do start to feel a certain status."
Elizabeth valued the adventure and exposure to cultural diversity provided by Pan Am, and treasured the feeling of expansiveness that it gave her: "I was thrilled with the foreign people who worked for Pan Am. They had a sophistication and worldliness that I really enjoyed.... I had led a sheltered life...Catholic schools...from a small town, and a small college."

Elizabeth experienced intense feelings of loyalty toward the company, which is strongly suggestive of idealizing attachment, as were her feelings of profound disappointment in Pan Am management: "I always had this extreme loyalty to Pan Am. If I'm loyal, things will be okay. I felt that those of us who stayed at Pan Am instead of going to United were true blue Pan Amers. I sort of felt like others did, that the ones who left were traitors....I felt that Pan Am's leadership was not very connected to reality, and it just seemed to me to be a revolving door of management people in, and management people out. They didn't care, because they got their golden parachutes. They were set up for life, but those of us down in the trenches....I felt they betrayed us. They didn't really care anything about Pan Am and the employees. They just cared about their own jobs and pursuing their own goals."

When I asked Elizabeth about physical symptoms, she showed evidence of prolonged trauma due to intense anxiety over an extended period of time, and used trauma-related words, such as "shock" and "overwhelmingness": "Physical symptoms? I was tired a lot...I used to wear myself out being anxious on the airplane to please, and to get repeat customers..... I didn't want to lose that life that I found, and I couldn't imagine another job giving me what Pan Am gave me.... When Pan Am went out of business, it was horrible. How Pan Am could be such a presence in the world...and then not exist...seemed unreal for a long time.... but as life settled into a different pattern, the shock really set in. The overwhelmingness of it came to the fore."

Elizabeth described her depression, brought on by her loss of attachment to Pan Am, and the catastrophic collapse of her self-esteem. This is also a good example of another aspect of traumatization; it is not just the injury or loss, but also the intense shame and self-loathing because of one's reactions to the loss which led to her symptoms. "I really felt a loss of status when I lost my job....and I felt I shouldn't feel this. Because deep down if you're spiritually grounded, or if you're just grounded, then the loss of a job shouldn't bring you down. So I would try not to seem depressed and try to pretend everything was okay, when really things weren't, because the first year after I lost my job, I found it difficult to get out of bed in the morning.... just felt like my limbs were leaden, and I hated myself for it.... because all the self-help things you read say that...if you are spiritually grounded, it shouldn't be such a horrible thing for you. You shouldn't be depressed."

Elizabeth was in the grip of an impossible requirement from others (and herself) that she should just "just move on," "to change her feelings," or to "choose to feel different." Unfortunately, this only encourages a person to stay in denial about how he or she truly feels.

After many hours of talking, I discovered the key to Elizabeth's childhood history that left her so vulnerable to retraumatization due to the events at Pan Am and explains her intense fear of losing her job: "It's interesting that you ask me about childhood trauma, because I happen to be adopted. Talking about adoption brings tears to my eyes, and it's hard for me to talk about...My first foster parent couldn't deal with me because I cried all the time. Actually now the doctors say what I had was Failure to Thrive Syndrome....I had a very rough year because I apparently didn't have the bonding and the holding and the closeness that normally a newborn would have."
One meaning of the fall of Pan Am for Elizabeth was to be orphaned again: "I had parents who were real practical, and cared for me in every way, but they were not really demonstrably loving, and because I didn't have that either when I was first born, I've often felt that it might have affected me, the way I am. In connection with Pan Am, I have always had an insecurity I think, deep inside me, because of my early life...I was always struggling for security."

This was a little girl who felt she had to try very hard to be loved, especially by her father: "I think a large part of my problem in life has been that I'm afraid not to be nice, and I'm always trying to please everybody else but myself. So working at Pan Am, that same mode continued....My Dad was sort of a non-demonstrative man. He did not hug me and I always felt awkward with him."

Elizabeth's relationship with her father soldered the link between being adopted and being defective. This interview with me may be the only time that link was challenged. The function of Pan Am was that it was something glorified in the present so that it could be a salvation for her self-esteem. When she lost Pan Am, Elizabeth once again experienced the old link between being orphaned and inherently defective. She was thrown into a severe depression, with a failure to thrive, unable to lift her arms. Even the fact that she was furloughed must have had a retraumatizing effect, reminding her of being orphaned and rejected by a foster parent.

Elizabeth's life is also an example of Stolorow's concept of the sustaining absolutisms of every day life. What does this mean? Because we are all finite beings over whom death and loss constantly loom, human beings develop unquestioned beliefs and assumptions that we unconsciously live by, in order to flee from the uncertainties of life and to maintain a sense of continuity, predictability, and safety. For example, when you say to a loved one, "I'll see you tomorrow," it is taken for granted that both you and the other person are going to be around.

Stolorow writes, "It is in the essence of emotional trauma that it shatters these absolutisms, a catastrophic loss of innocence that permanently alters one's sense of being-in-the-world" (p. 16). Think about Elizabeth's history. When a child is taken from her birth mother1 and handed over to a caretaker who also gives her up, her loss of innocence is profound. Then when she grows up to develop a strong attachment to a company whose loss once again makes her feel "orphaned," she is bound to feel severely traumatized. In my own case, I felt that Pan Am would forever be the world's most fabulous airline, and would never die, as my father had. While I was looking for Pan Am to replace the family I had, Elizabeth was hoping that Pan Am could provide an antidote to her experience.

When we can no longer believe in such "absolutisms of everyday life," many of us feel that the universe has become unpredictable, random, and unsafe, and it is especially traumatizing when this loss of innocence echoes what happened to us in childhood. Often traumatized people see the world differently than others do. They feel anxious, alienated, and estranged in an unsafe world in which anything can happen at any time. Anxiety slips into panic when it has to be borne in isolation; hence, it is essential that there be a place where painful feelings can be verbalized, understood, and held -- a relational home. As Stolorow points out, in the absence of such a sustaining relational home, emotional pain can become a source of unbearable shame and self-loathing, and traumatized people can fall into the grip of an impossible requirement to "get over it."

A powerful example of this shattering was the emotional reactions we all experienced following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. America was confronted with its vulnerability and lost its sense of grandiose invincibility. The fall of Pan Am had a similarly traumatic effect on its work force, and I am certain that the same feelings are being felt by the employees of those venerable old companies, like GM and Lehman Brothers, that everyone viewed as unassailably stable.

Elizabeth concluded by saying, sadly, "My job now is just a job. And I don't feel any particular affiliation or belonging. I go to work and come home. It's not exciting. It [the fall of Pan Am] was a great blow...and the loss of the camaraderie has been very tough....I think I'm going to miss it for the rest of my life."


Howard, the "first born of a first born," and the oldest of 5 children, was a Pan Am pilot, a Skygod. His early history reveals that he was often embarrassed about the meager living his father made, and was always striving to become the best at everything he attempted. He remembers being embarrassed that he had holes in the soles of his shoes. His mother was known as a "beauty," but she was often ill and depressed, and he seems to have had a great need to take care of her and make her proud. Howard was awarded an athletic and academic scholarship to college, where he was accepted into the "best" fraternity, and then was accepted into the Navy where he flew the "best" airplanes, and, of course, became a pilot for the "best" airline.

Howard describes his attachment to Pan Am as part of a grandiose group: "I just wanted to be part of the best. I never did have a negative emotion about Pan Am until we went out of business, the day we shut down. I think it's impossible for anybody to understand it unless they were there. I felt very close to everybody I flew with, like family. And in talking to contemporaries in the military, Pan American was looked upon as, and, for what I experienced, that the people just had more class."

Howard illustrates the feeling of expansiveness and adventurous spirit that everyone at Pan Am describes: "It was so much more than I ever expected; the people I flew with, the sights I saw, the places I saw. I've been in almost every major city in the world, and it was a great experience. I felt like I was a part of history!"

Like Elizabeth, Howard idealized Pan Am: "My image of Pan Am was of a worldwide carrier that served the world, and had a history of always being there whenever anybody in the United States needed them outside of the United States. It seemed that any time there was an international crisis, Pan American was always there to get the people out of there."

Soon after Howard began working for Pan Am, he went home from his first trip and his wife told him she wanted a divorce: "I had no idea that was coming at all. It just about destroyed me. I'd never really lost anything before. I just wasn't good enough for her, in her mind. Socially, you know, she was from a different background from me."

His next loss was in 1987 when his father died. "My father dying was as bad to me as my marriage to Linda breaking up, and of those three traumas, Pan Am going out of business was the worst, believe it or not."

He describes the emotional impact of the fall, and the trauma to his idealization of Pan Am and his own sense of being protected by it: "Through the years, I just tried to put it out of my thoughts and ignore it and just go on like I knew what I was doing! There's no other way you can do it. You can't quit. You can't just give up....At the end, when I found out about it, I just felt like a part of my body had been ripped off. When I say 'ripped off,' I don't mean 'stolen.' I mean pulled off my body, like an arm or a shoulder or something...It was a total sense of loss, like a ship with no rudder, no direction. Here you've been safely ensconced in the corporate womb all these years and all the sudden you've got to start thinking for yourself! And your whole foundation has just been ripped out from underneath you."

The deflation of grandiosity may have had a greater impact on the Skygods than any other employees. Howard's own grandiosity mirrored that of the company, with the shared sense of need for excellence. This is a hero who identifies with all the "firsts": "Pan Am had a bit of a heroic image, and I guess that's been my problem all my life! I always wanted to be the hero! I've done a lot of reading and studying about that, and being the first born of a first born is a double responsibility, and you feel like you're responsible for the world....My hero was John Steers, a boat captain who was an All American football player at Stanford before he went to work for Pan Am. He was part of the crew that took the flying boat from Hawaii back to the U.S. the long way around when Pearl Harbor was attacked....He was really my hero...the kind of guy I aspired to be. A John Wayne type of guy! Doesn't put up with anything!....We'd be out in these places all over the world, and you would think, 'Hey, we're all out to dinner here, and all of these flight attendants that are out with us, these stewardesses are absolutely gorgeous and intelligent, and every man in the world is after 'em, and it's my job, if they want me to, to protect them!'"

The hardest part of the fall of Pan Am was the shattering of his own sense of heroism. Howard describes a kind of cumulative trauma of his childhood that led him to feel that he had to be a hero. He had nothing and was nothing. To combat this, he admits to a heroic grandiosity, and the requirement (and burden) of responsibility. One senses that he needed to make the family proud of him, and that his striving was caused by the trauma of having to do more because he had less. With the loss of his wife Linda, and the travails of his company weighing on him, he began to feel powerless.

When the hero, due to circumstances beyond his control, loses, it affects him more deeply. Howard had a feeling of "If I follow my star, everything will turn out all right," but it didn't turn out all right with Linda, nor with Pan Am. The hero who loses what he is striving for is more affected than the person who has not put as much effort into it and who does not have as much need to be Number One. Thus, every loss is experienced as a shattering of grandiosity. He was thrown back into the beliefs of his childhood that he's nothing if he's not a hero.

Howard, as was typical of many Pan Am employees, idealized the company, and couldn't imagine its fall from grace. He needed to interpret its fall as deliberate malfeasance; in other words, it had to be something other than Pan Am's fault: "It was almost like there was a plan to put us out of business. They kept hiring these people who had no previous background in the industry. Why is this continuing to happen? It didn't change my feelings about being part of Pan Am, because I reached the point where I realized they keep bringing in these people, and they're not the real Pan Am. The real Pan Am is the people we've been working with all these years...and so I did not associate our management with the real Pan Am."
Pan Am pilots were not able to collect their full retirement, and in fact, were paid pennies on the dollar. Howard continues to worry about having "enough money." Unquestionably, he's still haunted by his childhood poverty. After Pan Am went out of business, Howard was lucky enough to get a job with United.

Having known Howard for years, I was concerned to hear the lack of vitality and aliveness that used to be characteristic of him. He said, "I wonder sometimes, if Pan Am had been as devoted to working out the problems that it did have manage-wise, the way United did, we'd probably still be alive." His aliveness depended upon being a hero, and he can't be a hero with United. His basis for vitality was taken away when he could no longer be a Skygod hero.

When I asked him if he has hopes and dreams for the future, he said quietly, "No. All the floundering around you do! So many losses and heartbreaks, and none of us had any control. I look at Pan Am going out of business as something over which I had no control. If I continue to be bitter about it, it's going to rip me apart."

However, Howard, in true hero fashion, is proud that he decided to go down with the ship. "It may be stupidity on my part, but the fact that I was able to stay with Pan Am until the end gives me a sense of accomplishment. There's a lot of people that say they wish they had stayed." He talks about the bitterness he hears from other pilots that were hired by United, and says:"I can't look at it that way. I'm just thankful to have a job. But it's just a job. No mistaking it."

It's plain that, for Howard, there's nothing heroic or expansive or exciting about it. It's not a life experience. It's just a job, leaving him feeling empty and worthless and convinced that his days of glory are ended.

As I conclude this four part series, former Pan Am employees have had to endure their feelings about the release of the Lockerbie bomber, who arrived home in his native Libya to the ecstatic cheers of the adoring crowds. It's just one more turn of the knife in the hearts of all Pan Amers and the families of the unfortunate victims.

When I hear the Qantas ads on television describing themself as "The World's Most Experienced Airline," I feel so outraged I want to throw something at the TV. They can't think up an identity of their own without stealing ours?

And, of course, newscasts today are full of sad news about the closing of well-known, venerable old companies, and I wish I could reach out to all of those people who are suffering. Pan Am people can understand their grief - we've been there for almost twenty years now. Ironically, most Americans don't even know our story because it largely took place on the world stage instead of within our country.

As for my life, I am happily at work in my second career. When I begin treatment with a new person, I feel privileged to begin our journey together; I fasten my imaginary seatbelt and look forward to a new adventure.

Pan Am, as the slogan goes, is "Gone But Not Forgotten." The company as parent died, but the family endures; the siblings continue to forge meaningful connections with each other all over the world -- finding creative ways, as families do, to project themselves unendingly into the future. Pan Amers are keeping alive the group memories through books and publications like Pan Amigo News and Jet Wings, and philanthropic organizations such as World Wings International( retired flight attendants), Clipper Pioneers (retired pilots), The Retirees Club (retired ground staff), and the Pan Am Historical Foundation (open to all including non employees). Each of the philanthropic organizations publish quarterly newsletters, and many blogs have been posted to keep groups informed about activities; for example, a website for mechanics who were based at JFK. The Pan Am AWARE store in Miami is busily supplying Pan Am memorabilia to those people who are nostalgic for "the Queen of the Skies." Most important of all, there are constant reunions, cruises, and travel opportunities, which serve to keep the family united, and doing what they do best: exploring the world together.

This is an illustration of another aspect of trauma, one that sounds a hopeful note: because death and loss are fundamental to us all, there is the possibility of forming bonds of deep emotional connection as "we meet each other as brothers and sisters in the same darkness" (Stolorow, p. 49). All of the former employees can tell you where we were when we heard about the sale of the Pacific routes, the Lockerbie tragedy, and the demise of Pan Am. We share common trauma, as well as phenomenal experiences: nobody can take our memories away. And if you ever have a chance to talk to a former Pan Am employee, prepare yourself for a nostalgic journey back to the "good old days," a time when America itself was at its zenith, and working for Pan Am felt like the best job in the world.

Postscript: This series of articles is dedicated to the Pan Am family, as well as our "Kissin' Cousins" at TWA, and the former employees of Eastern, Braniff, Western, PSA, Piedmont, and Republic Airlines -- just to mention a few.