REVIEW: 'Pan Am' Gets It Right, Mostly

Seniors on the Go
by , SmarterTravel Staff
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Airplane taking off into the sunset (Photo: iStockPhoto/Linda & Colin McKie)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 4, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Ed Perkins, Ed Perkins, Pan American Airways Corp., Seniors on the Go, senior travel.

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The first episode of "Pan Am," the new TV series from ABC, brought back plenty of memories from my own youthful travels—and maybe, if you're old enough, you have some as well. So please excuse this deviation from my usual focus on information you can actually use in your travels; I promise not to become a regular TV critic.

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What the Show Got Right

The show is set in the early 1960s, and it pegs the experience of flying in the early jet days pretty well. I flew on Pan Am many times in those days—to Hawaii, across the Atlantic, to Asia, and to the South Pacific—and found that the series' overall description of flying Pan Am was close to the mark:

  • The airline's primary focus was on premium-class travelers—still the case with today's big lines—where travelers received lavish meals and endless drinks. At that time, first-class cabins were large; conventional industry thinking was that almost all business travelers would fly up front, with economy relegated to leisure travelers and those visiting family. The main difference is that today's international first class is even more luxurious than it was in the 1960s.
  • Flight attendants were "stewardesses," and they were young and attractive. Airlines regularly "retired" stewardesses who exceeded rigorous weight limits or got "too old."
  • Flying was still something of an adventure; people dressed up to fly.
  • Flying was much less of a hassle—security screening came much later.
  • And people actually did ride helicopters from the top of the then-Pan Am (now Met Life) building to JFK (still called Idlewild until the end of 1963). Although Pan Am didn't operate the helicopters, it had a deal with New York Airways to offer helicopter trips at fares as low as $5 extra to Pan Am passengers on full-fare tickets.

What it Got Wrong

You almost always find some anachronisms in these period shows, and Pan Am is no exception:

  • The biggest is an out-and-out error on timing. The show seems to be saying that the flight highlighted in the first episode, supposedly in 1963, was the start of the jet age from New York to London. That's just not the case: Pan Am started flying 707s from New York to London in October 1958 and Paris a week or so later. Apart from industry references, I know firsthand: I flew on a Pan Am 707 from Paris to New York in early 1959.
  • The early jet flights used early-model pre-fanjet 707-120s, which generally couldn't make it from New York to London nonstop. The usual fueling stop was Gander; occasionally Goose Bay or Shannon.
  • Regardless of the date, the inaugural New York-London 707 trip would have been an overnight flight. I'm not sure when daytime eastbound transatlantic flights started, but they surely were not the first. Still, call that lapse "dramatic license." The writers would have had a tough time constructing dramatic cabin scenes for a darkened flight with everyone trying to get a bit of sleep.
  • A key plotline involves the last-minute substitution of one stewardess for another to act as "purser." Actually, back then, Pan Am pursers were male.
  • In the brief flashback to the Cuban refugee scene, one of the cast called the piston plane a DC6 (which actual refugee flights almost certainly were), but the plane shown was a DC7. Again, understandable; presumably, DC6s in good shape are pretty hard to find.

All in all, the show captured the overall early-jet atmosphere pretty well. But lest you fall into the grip of nostalgia for the "good old days" of flying, keep in mind that, at the outset of the jet age, the lowest 1958 economy round-trip New York-London fare of $272 would amount to around $2,000 to $5,000 (depending on which deflator you use) today. Yes, air travel is no longer fun unless you're up front, but at least it's cheap—and that's what most of you really want.

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