The golden age of aviation?

November 25, 2011

It is 1963. Transatlantic flights are a commercial possibility for the affluent and Pan Am is the biggest name in the business. Their pilots, mostly war trained, are rock stars. Passengers fly with ebullient style; dress to impress, eat restaurant-quality food, drink good liquor and have their cigarettes lit by charming, trilingual young ladies.

The airing of the ABC television series “Pan Am” is dosing older audiences with Jet Set nostalgia, and raising the eyebrows of younger ones with its scenes of air stewardesses undergoing preflight weigh-ins, grooming inspections and girdle checks (a bottom slap).

As the show’s star, Christina Ricci – she plays a purser – said in a media interview: “[the girls] had to be these intelligent, gracious hostesses who could be… emissaries in a way and I don’t think I realised that and I think that a lot of people won’t realise that until they watch the show.”

Pan Am flight attendants were all of a certain weight (between 110 and 135 pounds), health (excellent) and personality (extremely charming)… and single. Though they looked the part, modern audiences may squirm at the sexism and gender discrimination on display.

The Association of Flight Attendants released a statement on the show following its premiere in September. Pan Am, it wrote, “highlighted the myriad of social injustices overcome by the strong women who shaped a new career.”

Despite the union’s justifiable pride in how far the rights of flight attendants have come, can one detect a hint of nostalgia for travel’s “golden age”? The statement continues: “The fictional, glamorized world of Hollywood’s Pan Am is a far cry from today’s realities of air travel that ditches high fashion for ‘low cost,’ jam-packed airplanes and massive cuts to Flight Attendant staffing.”

In an interview with, Pan Am’s executive producer Jack Orman points to the larger truth behind the fiction: “They got it right the first time. Transcontinental commercial flights started in the late ’50s and we really haven’t gotten any faster… I think the appeal of Pan Am as a brand is the idea that travelling was fun and glamorous and entertaining and in a more innocent time certainly before all the security and all the rigmarole that you have to go through to get through the airport.”

Light security gives Pan Am its biggest plot point: Espionage. One of the stewardesses, Kelli Garner, moonlights as a CIA courier and gets into all kinds of scrapes in Paris, Berlin, Jakarta.

According to former Pan Am stewardess Nancy Hult Ganis, who worked as a producer on the show, airline employees really were recruited by the CIA. In an interview with, Ganis said she turned up stories about the carrier’s involvement with the U.S. State Department on “behind-the-scene missions.”

Several of the brushes with history dealt with in the show are true stories: JFK’s Berlin visit in June ’63; evacuating a planeload of pre-Cuban prisoners from the Bay of Pigs invasion.

Overly romanticised it may be, but Pan Am is an alluring, stylised foray into a time of discovery, excitement and passion increasingly hard to find for the modern traveller. It is also the story – absorbingly fictionalised, of an iconic airline that laid the groundwork for our cross-continental world.

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