Here’s What You Don’t Know About Pan Am’s Golden Era of Air Travel

A new book detailing the history of Pan Am proves that the glamorous days of flying are behind us—but so are the most inconvenient ones.

This year, upwards of 100 million Americans will zip around the world to celebrate the holiday season. They’ll deal with cramped legroom and unglamorous, germ-covered tray tables; long security lines at airports with the occasional pat-down; and they’ll cough up millions of dollars on ancillary fees. A recently released book by German publisher Callisto called Pan Am History, Design, and Identity will have you cringing at the current state of air travel—and longing for the glory days when flying was still exclusive. Back then, in-flight meals were served on proper tables in proper dining rooms. But then again, they could only handle 150,000 passengers a year. Here are 15 stunning images and curious facts, all pulled from the pages of this delightful new tome.

Boarding a Sikorsky S-40 in 1932
Boarding a Sikorsky S-40 in 1932

Pan Am’s first commercial route was from Key West to Havana—a path the airline had flown reliably as a mail carrier. It was big business, particularly for Americans looking for a quick reprieve from Prohibition. Eventually it was dubbed the “cocktail circuit.”

Source: Callisto Publishers

Flying Clipper Cruises
Flying Clipper Cruises

Modern airports didn’t exist in every major city in the 1930s, so Pan Am focused on buying aircraft that were capable of landing either on a runway or in the sea. The seaplanes had to refuel (and drop off snail mail) every 200 to 300 miles, so passengers headed from Miami to Rio de Janeiro would have to take multiday “flying clipper cruises” stopping at various Caribbean islands and coastal destinations along the way.

Source: Callisto Publishers

The Longest Flight in the World
The Longest Flight in the World

The flight from San Francisco to Hawaii daunted pilots: It was the longest route ever planned completely over water. To test their long-range navigational skills, they flew from Miami to the Virgin Islands and back in a loop, which took 17 hours. When Pan Am finally took off to Hawaii in April 1935, it was the first step to crossing the Pacific—and opening up global trade in unprecedented ways.

Source: Callisto Publishers

Exotic Was the Name of the Game
Exotic Was the Name of the Game

Here’s a Pan Am plane in the middle of nowhere in China—so remote the researchers could only identify it as an “unknown airfield in the [Chinese] interior.” By the mid-’30s, Pan Am was operating a fleet of planes that could connect cities as remote as Yunnan and Chengdu—places that may still daunt American travelers today.

Source: Callisto Publishers

Advertising With Enduring Value
Advertising With Enduring Value

Many of the posters advertising Pan American World Airways’ System of the Flying Clippers were drawn by artist Mark von Arenburg—like these, from the 1940s. Today, originals can sell for $1,800.

Source: Callisto Publishers

You Want the Seat in the Back of This Plane
You Want the Seat in the Back of This Plane

That’s the “De Luxe Compartment” on the 86,000-pound Atlantic Clipper, which was located behind regular passenger compartments, the dining lounge, and the galley. That squat room under the wing? That was the crew’s quarters. Behind the pilot bridge was another curious room: a navigation and radio room for directional support.

Source: Callisto Publishers

Dinner in the Sky
Dinner in the Sky

This is what meal service looked like on a Boeing 314: proper silverware, servers in full livery, folded cloth napkins. (Details on the menus are thin.) So what did passengers back then complain about? Horrible landings. The Boeing 314 was so reliably rocky that its entire hull had to be redesigned.

Source: Callisto Publishers

Bunking Up on Board
Bunking Up on Board

The first Boeings crossed the Atlantic in May 1939, just months before World War II broke out. The overnight route went from New York to Southampton via the Azores, Lisbon, and Marseille. (Yep, that’s three stopovers. Still jealous?)

Source: Callisto Publishers

A Force Abroad
A Force Abroad

For a decade after World War II, Germany wasn’t allowed to operate its own airline. So Pan Am spent wildly advertising its services in this part of the world—even putting Germany at the center of the globe in this one advertisement. With little competition there, it was a hugely profitable market.

Source: Callisto Publishers

Even the Uniforms Looked Chic
Even the Uniforms Looked Chic

Nobody dresses up to get on a plane anymore—but when Pan Am was inaugurating the Boeing 707 in 1958, the flight attendants were just as decked out as the passengers. It was part of a luxe branding scheme that considered every detail: timetables, tickets, in-flight magazines, bag tags, you name it.

Source: Callisto Publishers

A First-Class Lounge in 1962
A First-Class Lounge in 1962

There weren’t many restaurants or shops in the airports of yesteryear. Truly, they fulfilled one purpose alone: getting passengers on planes and getting planes into the sky. But the Pan Am terminal built in New York in the early 1960s had bronze sculptures and Venetian glass and a First Class Clipper Lounge where white-jacketed men would pour you a stiff drink. If you didn’t qualify for entry, you were stuck twiddling your thumbs.

Source: Callisto Publishers

The Hotel Brand You Never Knew Pan Am Started
The Hotel Brand You Never Knew Pan Am Started

Intercontinental Hotels—yes, the brand with nearly 200 hotels around the world—was actually the creation of Pan Am; it was founded by the airline in 1946 and became one of the first global hotel brands alongside Hilton and Sheraton. The goal: to provide American travelers consistent service standards no matter where they went.

Source: Callisto Publishers

The Space Ship Is Going to Europe
The Space Ship Is Going to Europe

That was the text on this ad—which was for one of Pan Am’s 747s. “And it’s got all sorts of extras you’ll never find on ordinary planes. Like two aisles instead of one.” That’s the one feature we’ve still got. The “wider seats, higher ceilings,” expanded legroom, and overhead compartments? You know how that shook out.

Source: Callisto Publishers