Why did Pan Am go bankrupt?

Alastair Majury
6 min readMar 21, 2020

Pan Am is a cautionary tale for any company and investors in companies, if you were to say to someone in the 1960s that Pan Am wouldn’t exist in 1992, but air travel would be more popular than ever, you wouldn’t have many people believe you.

Please find below my answer to this question which was originally asked and answered on Quora.

Pan American World Airways — Wikipedia

Pan American World Airways, originally founded as Pan American Airways and commonly known as Pan Am, was the principal and largest international air carrier and unofficial flag carrier of the United States from 1927 until its collapse on December 4, 1991. It was founded in 1927 as a scheduled air mail and passenger service operating between Key West, Florida and Havana, Cuba. The airline is credited for many innovations that shaped the international airline industry, including the widespread use of jet aircraft, jumbo jets, and computerized reservation systems. It was also a founding member of the International Air Transport Association(IATA), the global airline industry association. Identified by its blue globe logo (“The Blue Meatball”), the use of the word “Clipper” in its aircraft names and call signs, and the white uniform caps of its pilots, the airline was a cultural icon of the 20th century. In an era dominated by flag carriers that were wholly or majority government-owned, it was also the unofficial overseas flag carrier of the United States.

It was a very widely known airline at the time, so the US had no reason to setup a rival and official flag carrier when Pan AM was effectively doing the job for it.

Remember that:

At its peak in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pan Am advertised under the slogan, the “World’s Most Experienced Airline”. It carried 6.7 million passengers in 1966, and by 1968, its 150 jets flew to 86 countries on every continent except for Antarctica over a scheduled route network of 81,410 unduplicated miles (131,000 km). During that period the airline was profitable and its cash reserves totaled $1 billion.

It was also the launch airline of the very much iconic 747.

Pan Am was the launch customer of the Boeing 747, placing a $525 million order for 25 in April 1966. On January 15, 1970 First Lady Pat Nixonchristened a Pan Am Boeing 747 Clipper Young America at Washington Dulles in the presence of Pan Am president Najeeb Halaby.

There is no single reason why Pan Am went bust, but here are just some.Pan American World Airways — Wikipedia

Fallout from the 1973 oil crisis

Pan Am had invested in a large fleet of Boeing 747s expecting that air travel would continue to increase. It did not, as the introduction of many wide-bodies by Pan Am and its competitors coincided with an economic slowdown. Reduced air travel after the 1973 oil crisis made the overcapacity problem worse. Pan Am was vulnerable, with its high overheads as a result of a large decentralized infrastructure.

High fuel prices and its many older, less fuel-efficient narrowbodied airplanes increased the airline’s operating costs. Federal route awards to other airlines, such as the Transpacific Route Case, further reduced the number of passengers Pan Am carried and its profit margins.

The acquisition of National Airlines for $437 million further burdened Pan Am’s balance sheet, already under strain after financing the Boeing 747sordered in the mid-1960s. This acquisition did little to improve Pan Am’s competitive position in relation to nimbler, lower-cost competitors in a deregulated industry, as National’s North-South route structure provided insufficient feed at Pan Am’s transatlantic and transpacific gateways in New York and Los Angeles.

The airlines had incompatible fleets (apart from the Boeing 727) and corporate cultures (partly as a result of National being perceived by some Pan Am employees as mainly a regional “backwoods” carrier with few trunk routes), and the integration was poorly handled by Pan Am management who presided over an increase in labor costs as a result of harmonizing National’s pay scales with Pan Am’s.

The bombing of Pan Am flight 103 above Lockerbie, Scotland, resulted in 270 fatalities. Faced with a $300 million lawsuit filed by more than 100 families of the victims, the airline subpoenaed records of six U.S. government agencies, including the CIA, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the State Department. Though the records suggested that the U.S. government was aware of warnings of a bombing and failed to pass the information to the airline, the families claimed Pan Am was attempting to shift the blame.

The first Gulf War triggered by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on August 2, 1990, caused fuel prices to rise, which severely depressed global economic activity. This in turn caused a sharp contraction of worldwide air travel demand, plunging once profitable operations, including Pan Am’s prime transatlantic routes, into steep losses. These unforeseen events constituted a further major blow to Pan Am, which was still reeling from the 1988 Lockerbie disaster. To shore up its finances, Pan Am sold most of its routes serving London Heathrow — arguably Pan Am’s most important international destination — to United Airlines.

If you are interested in the decline of Pan Am you may be interested in watching:

or if you have more time:

Alastair Majury resides locally in the historic Scottish city of Dunblane, and is a Principal Consultant and a Senior Regulatory Business Analyst working across the country. Alastair Majury also serves on the local council (Stirling Council) as Councillor Alastair Majury where he represents the ward of Dunblane and Bridge of Allan, topping the poll.

Alastair Majury, is also a director of Majury Change Management Ltd is a highly experienced Senior Business Analyst / Data Scientist with a proven track record of success planning, developing, implementing and delivering migrations, organisational change, regulatory, legislative, and process improvements for global financial organisations, covering Retail Banking, Investment Banking, Wealth Management, and Life & Pensions.

For several years now, Alastair has worked extensively with a variety of financial institutions in order to offer the utmost comprehensive services. As a data scientist/business analyst, Alastair Majury is expected to find intuitive and sensible solutions to complex problems.

As a data scientist/business analyst, Alastair Majury has worked closely with several high-profile businesses, such as BNP Paribas, National Australia Bank, Standard Life and the Royal Bank of Scotland Group.​A graduate of University of Glasgow, Alastair Majury earned his M.A. in Economics with Business Economics. Since then, Alastair has undergone several training sessions and earned multiple certifications for a variety of skills. More specifically, he has earned certifications in IAQ, risk management, resource management, and a bevy of other areas. ​Alastair Majury thoroughly enjoys his work.

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Alastair Majury

I am a Chartered Member of CISI, which is the UK’s leading securities and investment professional body. Alastair Majury resides locally in Dunblane.