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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Glory Days of Worldwide US Airlines Are Long Gone

I read with some amusement yesterday as airline pundits hailed Continental's new nonstop service from Newark to Mumbai (Bombay) as proof that Continental along with Delta, American and United have filled the void left by the dearly departed Pan Am, Braniff and TWA to provide American airlines services to far flung destinations throughout the world. I even read a blurb on the internet that Delta was the new Pan Am and Continental the new TWA. Nothing could be further from the truth, and quite frankly the attempt at association is insulting.

While today's US Airlines are beginning to approach the number of destinations served abroad by the aforementioned airlines, their route structures and level of service don't come anywhere near that of their predecessors. Today's US Airlines are hub and spoke carriers that serve international destinations almost exclusively from their hub cities. Delta, the largest US based carrier in Europe, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East (the areas that used to be dominated by Pan Am and TWA) does not offer a single nonstop flight across the Atlantic from a city that is not considered a Delta hub. The same can be said for Continental and US Airways transatlantic services as well as United who a few months ago dropped its last non hub route from New York-JFK to London-Heathrow, a route that has long been considered to be the world's most lucrative.

American Airlines alone among US carriers links major American cities that are not hubs for the airline such as Los Angeles, Boston and New York-JFK with top international destinations such as London, Sao Paulo and Tokyo. But even American has emphasis on its hubs with most international flights.

This is directly the opposite approach than what was taken by Pan Am, TWA and Braniff in their heydays. These carriers linked cities throughout the nation whether they were large operational centers for the airline or not with international destinations nonstop.

For example in 1978, TWA flew to London nonstop from Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Newark, Washington, Chicago and Los Angeles. Braniff flew to Panama City nonstop from Miami, Dallas/Ft Worth, Los Angeles, Washington, and New York. Pan Am flew nonstop to London in 1987 from New York, Washington, Miami, Detroit, Seattle, San Fransisco and Los Angeles.

While Pan Am's operations were always centered around New York and to a lesser extent Miami, non hub cities such as Los Angeles, San Fransisco, Chicago, Baltimore and Boston reaped the benefits of nonstop international air travel to such destinations as Frankfurt, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Caracas. TWA was similar in its approach but unlike Pan Am, TWA was never a truly worldwide carrier, never serving South America or Japan. For most of TWA's history its route map did not extend east of Bombay, until 1969 when it won the Transpacific route case versus Pan Am and Northwest and was able to extend its reach into the Far East and fly a round the world route. (My father actually flew TWA around the world starting in Chicago and stopping in Paris, Rome, Bombay and Hong Kong before returning to Chicago. For his efforts he got a nice framed certificate from TWA as a member of the "Round the World Club.") In 1975 however TWA traded this authority as well as flights to the Middle East and Germany with Pan Am for additional European flights. The agreement left Pan Am the dominant US carrier to the Germany, Middle East, Africa and Asia (in addition to being strong in Latin America which was not served by TWA) while TWA dominated the non US to Germany transatlantic market, and was left as the only US airline serving Paris, until National Airlines (who was bought by Pan Am following deregulation) won Miami-Paris authority in 1977. While Pan Am seemed to give up far more lucrative routes the reason was simple: Prior to the Deregulation Act of 1978 Pan Am was not permitted to fly passengers domestic US flights of any kind (even to feed international flights from JFK, Miami, Boston and San Fransisco) while Pan Am ironically was authorized under the German Civil Aviation Act of 1953 to operate Internal German Services (IGS). So ironically enough prior to deregulation, Frankfurt was the one traditional hub Pan Am actually operated!

In addition, Pan Am, TWA and Braniff flew to the types of cities that US Airlines have not served since. For example Pan Am flew to Ankara for most of its post World War II existence. No US Airline has flown there since. TWA flew at various times in the 1970s, 80s and 90s to Sanata Maria, Dhahran, Bahrain, Riyadh, Cairo, Casablanca, Tunis and Tripoli. TWA today is still among the most recognizable American brands in the Middle East, even though the airline has been reduced to internet tribute sites on the web.

In addition to Ankara, Pan Am flew at various times to cities such as Tehran, Damascus, Krakow, Beriut, Hanover, Jakarta, Dubrovnik, Brasilia, Keflavik, Abu Dhabi, Bergen, Basel, Bremen and Belem. None of these cities have been served by a US airline since the demise of Pan Am.

TWA was long considered the industry's standard for customer service and comfortable air travel. Pan Am wasn't far behind, and Braniff was in some ways the forerunner of its Dallas neighbor Southwest with innovative and colorful advertising. These three airlines set a high standard for international travel that has not been matched by today's industry giants.

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I am the host of the Major League Soccer Talk and EPL Talk Podcasts and am frequent guest on other (world) football shows. I am also the publisher of various other websites including this one. I work in public/government relations in addition to my soccer work and have a keen interest in history, politics, aviation, travel,and the world around us.