September 06, 2018

Experiencing Pan Am, More Than A Quarter-Century After The Dead Airline Went South

I didn't take my first flight until I was 19 years old, and it was a doozy: a jaunt from JFK to London-Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic to start my semester abroad, the fall semester of my junior year in college.

While I found it scary, it was also a huge novelty after a lifetime spent on the ground. It still baffles me every time I end up traveling through the air.

Virgin Atlantic continues to be one of my favorite airlines—though, 23 years later, I've also memorably flown Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, and Aer Lingus, among others.

That first flight came relatively late in life for me, when you consider how many screaming babies and back-of-seat-kicking toddlers there are flying the not-so-friendly skies these days. It was 1995, and although I remember my father flying to East Coast destinations like DC and Atlanta for work every now and then, my parents never broached the subject of flying anywhere for a family vacation.

In fact, my mother had never boarded an airplane—and I don't think she has yet to even now.

In 1995, the year of my first armrest-clutching, breath-holding, wide-eyed and seat-belted "wheels up" experience, one of the most famous airlines ever had already been out of business for four years.

Pan American Airways dissolved in 1991—but even then, it had survived way past its heyday. It was really grooving around 1975—the year I was born—and through the early- to mid-80s.

But now, there's something that's resuscitated this so-called "dead" airline: The Pan Am Experience.

Thanks to some Hollywood magic and one obsessive aviation collector, the world's most fashionable airline ever has gotten back into the groove for the exclusive few who manage to get a boarding pass.

The Pan Am Experience has been on my bucket list since it first debuted at a movie production studio in the North Valley of LA in 2014. I got to take a tour of it years ago on a scouting mission as an Atlas Obscura field agent, but nothing came of it.

And then my frequent-flyer fantasies came true: I not only got to go, but I got to write about the Experience for Atlas Obscura.

As I wrote in my recently published article, the monthly event has become a full-fledged time capsule of the airline as passengers would have encountered it back then—when I was just a tot, and my two feet were firmly planted on the ground.

Some of its attendees are certainly nostalgic for a bygone era they once experienced firsthand—but, like me, there are generations of jetsetters who never experienced the now-defunct airline except while watching films like Catch Me If You Can and TV shows like Pan Am (which used some of the equipment and props that belong to the Experience).

As inflight smoking was banned on nearly all flights by 1988, I've never been on a plane where cigarettes were not only allowed but encouraged.

It was just a different time back then—but at the Pan Am Experience, the period-dressed stewardesses (let's call them what they were back then) will "light" a prop cigarette for you while someone takes a picture.

Boarding the Pan Am Experience's mock flight to one of the airline’s historical hubs (in my case, it was coincidentally London) is about as close as I will ever get to witnessing the airline’s former golden age.

If it weren’t for the fact that I didn't actually have to buckle my seatbelt, I might've thought that I'd been truly transported back in time.

The only thing that seemed to be lacking—at least back in the Clipper Class (the airline's business class at the time)—was the turbulence.

Our menus had been reproduced to exacting detail, right down to the colors and the paper texture and weight.

The throwback drink selections were a reminder of the drinking days of yore—and, as in the '70s and '80s, they just kept flowing.

I went classic and timeless with a gin martini.

I gladly accepted the hot towel, tonged over to me from an occultish bowl, overflowing with steam.

I selected the chateaubriand for my main course, because that seemed like the thing to do to be appropriately fancy for the period.

All of the courses came served on a set of authentic, original airline china dishes and antique utensils.

The food was good—all five courses of it—but in some ways, at least for me, it didn't need to be. I could've spent all night basking in the glee of all those around me.

Everybody just seemed to be having so much fun—from my Clipper Class rowmates and the First Classers on the upper deck right on down to the crew.

The person who has the most fun at the Pan Am Experience, however, has got to be its creator, Anthony Toth—who's also the focus of my article for Atlas Obscura. He started flying to Europe at an incredibly early age to visit his grandparents, which led a lifelong (so far) mission of collecting as much as he can.

Read all about it (and him) in my article, "How One Pan Am Fan Recreated the Golden Age of Air Travel," on

Screenshot from Atlas Obscura
Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Flight Crew Fashion of a Bygone Era
Photo Essay: LAX's New International Terminal
Photo Essay: Best of Saarinen's TWA Flight Center, JFK

No comments:

Post a Comment