Dec. 4, 1991: Pan Am makes its last flight

Christy Karras
Christy Karras

Through much of the 20th century, the term “Pan Am” (a nickname for Pan American World Airways) was synonymous with high-class international air travel from the United States. That legacy came to an end on Dec. 4, 1991, when a host of factors forced the once-lauded airline to shut down operations.

Pan Am was founded in 1927 to fly mail routes to the Caribbean and almost immediately became America’s de facto international airline. With a flagship terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City and routes to destinations around the world, Pan Am flew high through the 1960s and ‘70s. Its pilots were America’s most trusted, its flight attendants the most admired and its food the most palatable. Among its pioneering innovations: It was the first airline to use Boeing 747 planes, and it was using computers (which took up an entire floor of its Manhattan headquarters) by the 1960s.

But bad luck and bad timing would be the airline’s downfall. Pan Am ordered a new fleet of jets in the 1970s — just before fuel prices skyrocketed, making ticket prices rise and customer numbers fall. By the 1980s, deregulation of the airline industry forced Pan Am to compete on an uneven playing field with younger, more adaptable airlines. Soon, it was selling off assets and restructuring for better efficiency.

Just when it was back in profitable territory, the airline suffered another massive blow with the 1988 terrorist bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. By 1991, Pan Am was rapidly losing money even as it agreed to a potentially lifesaving partnership with Delta Air Lines — but Delta withheld funding at the last minute. On that day, Dec. 4, Pan Am flew its last flight from Barbados to Miami and closed up operations for good. Now, an international flight school, a reputation for service and fading pop-culture cachet are all that remains of the once-great airline.