Sunday, March 2, 2014

A review of SKYGODS: The Fall of PanAm...

An 80s era ad for the now defunct PanAm…

PanAm has been out of business for a couple of decades now.  I am old enough to remember the airline, which had a television show styled after it in 2011.  I actually enjoyed ABC's PanAm, which got axed after a single season…  I liked it so much that I even read an e-book written by a former PanAm flight attendant.  I'll be copying and pasting my Epinions review of that book in the next post.  In this one, I want to focus on a book called SKYGODS: The Fall of PanAm.  Written by Robert Gandt, this book is the story of the rise and fall of a legendary airline.  According to, this book was published in 2011, but I think it was actually published in the 1990s and revived in 2011, just in time to capitalize on the television show. 

A trailer for the PanAm TV show...

I remember flying PanAm a couple of times in the 1970s.  From 1978 until 1995, I didn't do any flying because my parents were too cheap to take me anywhere that required flying.  I probably didn't miss too much, though.  I don't know that flying was really that much better back then…  or was it?

Anyway, Gandt's book about PanAm is a very entertaining look at PanAm's history and the people who made it happen.  He starts at the beginning, writing the story of Juan Trippe's vision for a classy, international airline based in New York City that took people, especially Americans, all over the world.  In the beginning, PanAm was a burgeoning, elite airline.  It was innovative and luxurious and sported beautiful flight attendants who spoke several languages and served champagne with style.  It had no domestic flights in the beginning, preferring to bill itself as an international airline.  That changed as time went on… but not having the domestic routes in the beginning is probably a main reason why the airline went bust.  That, and some ill-advised investments during the glory days that the PanAm powers-that-be held on to for too long.

Gandt also writes of the so-called "skygods", brash, prima donna, demanding pilots who came from the military to fly PanAm's aircrafts.  Some of the tales he writes about PanAm are positively juicy and Gandt has an exciting writing style that managed to hold my attention for the couple of weeks it took to finish this book.  I was particularly interested in the stories about how PanAm served Berlin during the Communist era.  Several staff members, who were reputed to be a bit oddball, lived in Berlin to serve the westerners that visited the divided, walled city.  Lufthansa was not allowed to fly into Berlin, so PanAm sort of cornered the market.  

I'm guessing that the fall of communism wasn't so great for PanAm, nor was the bombing of Flight 103, which resulted in a devastating crash in Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people.

One woman who had given up her son for adoption later found out that he died in the crash...

A look back at the crash…

PanAm went bust in 1991, just like the Soviet Union did.  Gandt does a great job explaining how and why the airline died, and he does it with style.  I got a kick out of reading about the other airlines who were involved in the race to stay relevant, as well as the pilots who were involved.  Imagine what happens if you base your whole life around being able to fly airplanes and you get too old.  Gandt writes about some of these folks who had low seniority and were furloughed for years.  

There was a time when the US had a lot more airlines to choose from and they all had their own "personalities".  Nowadays, one airline is probably not much better or worse than another is.  They all pretty much suck if they are US carriers.

Anyway, this was a fascinating read and very much worth a look if you have any interest in the airline industry, especially as it was in the "good old days".  Indeed, in an odd parallel, it reminds me a bit of what's been happening with Epinions.  Highly recommended.

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