THE BLOG
12/13/2011 07:40 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2012

Who Is The New Pan Am?

I owe my career in travel, which has been largely agreeable, with undeniable moments of high pleasure, to Pan Am.

When I started the adventure travel company, Sobek, in the '70s, I had aspirations of worldwide exploration, of opening up arenas of adventure to a global audience. I had maps, charts and globes, but little money. I had dreams of making first descents of rivers in Turkey, Pakistan, New Guinea, Africa and pioneering treks in India, Nepal and the Andes. But as I made the rounds visiting various international airlines and asking for support, I was turned down again and again and again. And then I met Rick Laylan, the District Sales Manager in San Francisco for Pan Am. He immediately caught my passion, shared my vision and understood how adventure travel was poised to become a significant sector in the travel trade. And so he offered to help fly me to far-away places to explore and set up new tours. And it worked: his support on Pam Am flights ignited an entire industry.

But beyond my gratitude that came with the logistical aid of a partner airline, I fell in love with Pan Am, the portal to the world and with it the infinite intrigue of discovery. I loved the Jackie-O-style pill box hats the hostesses self-importantly wore, and the tunis blue uniforms. I loved that they loved flying. I felt courtly, like an international man of mystery, showing off my Pan Am bag. I signed up on the wait list for a Pan Am trip to the moon. I visited the ports in Macau and Foynes, Ireland where the first Pan Am Flying boats made their trans-ocean stops. I even dated a Pan Am flight attendant (née stewardess). And, I saw the world. Thank you, Rick Laylan and Pan Am.

My flight to rewarding livelihood could have been derailed many times, including an incident in the late '70s when I flew Pam Am to Ankara, Turkey to make the first descent of the Euphrates River, hoping to open a tour similar to rafting the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. I spent a spell deep in the outback of the Adiyaman Plateau, and when time to return, I arrived at the airport in clothes that had been roiled in dirt and mud for a fortnight. I had the courtesy to detour to an airport WC to change into a fresh set of clothes toted for the return -- but discovered I had forgotten to pack extra socks.

I boarded the Pan Am flight and was delighted to be upgraded to First Class. Once airborne, I slipped off my boots and immediately slumped into sleep. Not long later I was awakened by an attendant shaking my shoulder and demanding I put my boots back on. I looked down to a stinky cloud drifting from my feet, and the seats next to me evacuated. Afterwards, upon receiving a complaint letter, Rick Laylan called, but rather than ban me from future flights, as was recommended, he just offered a gentle warning, for which I was ever thankful.

Pan Am was the world's largest international airline for decades, and my ticket to adventure. So, like so many, I was devastated when Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991. It was like a family loss. Rick Laylan moved to United, and I started working with a raft of international carriers, but none provided the enchantment and pride of the skies as Pan Am.

Until now...

Since Pan Am's demise I have flown most of the international airlines with gates in the US, and usually in business class, since as a member of the travel trade (I remain part-owner of Sobek and was part of the founding team of Expedia) I am frequently entitled to industry rates and upgrades. A partial list of carriers runs more than 50 long.

And, there have been some wonderful experiences winging the world on these carriers: some lovely staff; some impressive service; some tasty fare. But, nothing like Pan Am, or at least how I remember Pan Am, and memory does tend to fetishize. Yet, while getting there used to be half the fun, the typical long-haul flight is now characterized by a low hum of ordinariness, more efficiency than emotional richness.

And so it is with some surprise that I make a flight to Africa on an airline I had yet to ride, and it feels like the old days. It feels like the new Pan Am. This is, of course, a completely unscientific evaluation, and results may vary. This is personal, but I'd like to share my assessment.

The new Pan Am is Emirates.

I have flown to Africa many times, on many carriers, but there is, at this writing, and in my opinion, nothing like Emirates for connecting to the continent. Like Pan Am in its prime, Emirates today is the world's largest international airline, and as such, it can get you from here to there like no other.

I leave LAX late Friday afternoon on a Boeing 777-300ER, and immediately feel the difference. The attendants all wear elegant high-heels and hats, red pillboxes (not dissimilar to Pan Am's) with beige scarf attached to one side, flowing sideways over one shoulder. It is a 16-and-a-half-hour flight to Dubai, one of the longest in the world, so there is hope for comfort, and there is, seats that recline 180 degrees and sport winged headrests, extra-wide plush eye covers, noise-cancelling headphones, automatic window shades, even stars on the ceiling to lend some ambience and ease away jet lag. The seats give massages, in four settings: normal, pulse, wave and zig-zag. A bottle of Voss water is just an elbow away. And you need entertainment: Emirates spares little with its 17-inch-wide screen and Ice digital video system (a bordering-on-the-ridiculous 1,200 channels), which includes a tablet you can control from the furthest reaches of the chair. Emirates was awarded the "World's Best Airline In-flight Entertainment" for the seventh year in some industry poll, and I can't disagree. So, I watch a marathon of movies. The only thing missing is popcorn.

Emirates started in 1985, as Pan Am was winding down, with two leased aircraft; it now has a fleet of 160 planes and flies to some 116 destinations in 66 countries on six continents (including 21 cities in Africa). More than 1,000 flights leave Dubai each week -- the airport is within eight hours of over two thirds of the world's population -- so it really does link the world in a way Pan Am once did.

While many long-haul carriers now feature flat beds, Michelin-style menus and the latest wizardry in entertainment systems, the real secret sauce that makes a transcontinental flight transcendent is, of course, the staff, and the authenticity of their friendliness and sunny attitudes. Pan Am always seemed to have attendants overjoyed to be a part of the team, but in recent years too many cabin crew members, in my experience, seem to see the job as a chore, not a privilege, the glamour bleached away. Most of the Asian-based airlines are rightfully legendary for their attention to detail and supreme service -- but the staff almost always seems a little too professional, almost impenetrable, more Stepford Wives than gregarious independents.

On my Emirates flight, though, the attendants are chatty, humorous and personal, smiles bright through the red lipstick, and let me know their ideas and opinions. They are all stationed in Dubai and enjoy free luxury living accommodations, no taxes and big discounts at bars, restaurants and health clubs. But even then one shares that she misses Los Angeles "because you just can't get good BBQ ribs in Dubai."

OK, using a hub means you have to connect. For most of my previous trips to Africa I would connect thru London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam or Paris and wait interminable hours in sterile lounges or duty free shops. But Emirates is transforming layovers into indulgent stays. I arrive Dubai at 7:45 p.m., and my connecting flight to Johannesburg isn't until 4:40 a.m. Yikes. But Emirates has arranged a chauffeur and I am whisked off to a property called The One & Only Royal Mirage, a compound of caliphate-style palaces on a private beach on the Arabian Gulf.

After a welcome drink I'm spirited by electric cart past gardens and fountains to a junior suite in the Residence and Spa, a room from which I do not want to leave. A wooden king-sized bed sprinkled with rose petals, a great high-pressure shower and traditional majlis-style sofas, an Arabic term for a room in a private home used to entertain guests, though I am solo. It seems my bane as a traveler is that whenever I happen into an extravagantly romantic suite, I am alone.

A heavenly few hours later my driver returns and shuttles me back to Terminal 3, where I shuffle to the Emirates business lounge. It is, I must confess, an impressive sprawl, more high-end cruise ship than typical lounge. The length and width of two football fields, you almost need a map or GPS to navigate through the water features, plants, bars and buffets. It has station after station of gourmet food of all ethnicities and stripes, with cooks at the ready, offering everything from tea and biscuits to a five course meal with huge selections of fine wines and champagne, fare from grilled Chilean sea bass to hotdogs. Yes, the Virgin Lounge in London is stunning, but this even more so. There are free massages, shoe shines and hot showers, WiFi, couchettes as good as most beds. I settle in with my laptop and a course of Tandoori chicken served with biriyani, laccha salad and mint chutney with a fine Grand Cru. I'm not ready to leave when the call comes to board.

But the next surprise comes upon boarding the A380. The whole of the top floor of the plane is first and business class, and unlike the 777, the seats are individual pods, personal sanctuaries, all with aisle access, and the beds are 79 inches long and flat. This is better than Pan Am First Class used to be.

I settle back in a cabin quieter than any other aircraft and -- with a freshly squeezed orange juice -- read a bit about the A380 and its fuel economy, which makes me feel slightly better for the air travel I do. The plane consumes 20% less fuel per seat than other large aircraft, fuel economy better than that of hybrid cars. And 25% of the A380 structure is made up of composite and other environmentally friendly lightweight materials.

Once at 40,000 feet, I head back to the onboard lounge, a kind of luxury pub not dissimilar to what Pan Am provided in its original 747 configurations, but updated with a 42" LCD screen, a couple of plush sofas and a parade of genuinely affable staff. Unlike most other airlines, which tend to primarily hire from their originating country, inevitably promoting a kind of cultural uniformity, Emirates has gone broadly international. It is a kind of United Nations of attendants, and I think this is one of the reasons the gladness factor is so high. For one, when hiring for disposition and bearing, the pool gets a lot bigger if not limited to a single geography. And, there is a winning-the-jackpot outlook that comes with selection, with the same international glamor attached that Pan Am personnel enjoyed in the heyday. Just on my flight to Johannesburg I meet crew from Korea, Argentina, Uzbekistan, Japan, Egypt, South Africa, Lebanon, the UK, Bulgaria, Serbia, New Zealand and Moldova (talk about winning the lottery.) Several seem so pleased to meet me they pull out Polaroid cameras to take pictures of us together by the horseshoe-shaped bar.

But the real measure of the quality of an airline experience is whether you want it to end. It is only with regrets that we begin our descent into Johannesburg.

Ten days later it is time to return. I had spent the time at a remote private camp in Zambia and I'm pretty soiled when arriving at the airport. But I have a change of clothes in my one carry-on, so freshen up only to find I don't t have a clean pair of socks. Once onboard the Emirates flight I keep my boots on -- not even risking the change to the complimentary toilet kit socks -- and the flight is no less amazing for it.