Few in aviation are associated with as many industry firsts as Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American Airways (Pan Am). Much of the modern industry, from cheap seats to big aircraft, is based on his original ideas.
Trippe was born in New Jersey in 1899. He graduated from Yale University and began his working life on Wall Street. Aviation was never far from his thoughts, though, and he spotted a market for an air taxi service for some of his wealthy contacts, forming Long Island Airways. He soon shifted his money to Colonial Air Transport, which won an important airmail contract and allowed Trippe to spread his commercial wings.
It was the Caribbean that captured his attention. A new airline was needed to serve increasing demand, and Trippe created the Aviation Corporation of America, soon morphing it into Pan American Airways. The first flight was in October 1927, from Key West, Florida to Havana, Cuba. Pan Am went from one success to the next, becoming the first airline to cross the Pacific and Atlantic oceans using the Clipper flying boats. Charles Lindbergh was employed as Trippe’s wing man, securing landing rights, and analyzing routes and aircraft setups.
Trippe even had the foresight to buy into the China National Aviation Corporation so he could provide domestic services in the People’s Republic of China. He also became a partner in Panagra, a joint venture with Grace Shipping Company, to operate flights in South America, and, under his leadership, Pan Am acquired Mexicana and owned it for many years.
Two big innovations stand out, even in Trippe’s rich career. Despite his early connections flying the rich and famous in his air taxi service, Trippe always believed that flying should be accessible to all. Pan Am’s success finally gave him the platform he needed and, in 1945, he created the world’s first tourist class, slashing the normal round trip fare from New York to London by more than half. The industry didn’t warm to the idea and the UK even banned Pan Am flights that sold economy tickets, forcing the airline to land in Shannon, Ireland, instead. This unnecessary posturing had one happy outcome when cold Pan Am passengers were warmed up one night by the first ever Irish coffees.
No amount of alcohol could make people forget about cheap airline tickets, however. The age of mass travel owes much to Trippe’s foresight. He even founded InterContinental Hotels to accommodate his growing number of passengers.
If you build it, I’ll buy it
Trippe’s obsession with cheap fares complemented his fascination with jet aircraft. He was quick to see the advantages of the new designs and was the first to fly a Boeing 707 across the Atlantic. The 707 was twice as fast as the propeller aircraft it replaced, and carried twice as many people. The Pan Am boss reasoned that the more often he could fly, and the larger the aircraft, the cheaper he could make Pan Am’s fares.
This line of thinking led to the aircraft with which Trippe is most often associated. In 1965, he asked Boeing President Bill Allen to look into designing an aircraft that would dwarf anything on the market. The Boeing 747 was born with a legendary exchange: “If you build it, I’ll buy it,” said Trippe, to which Allen replied: “If you buy it, I’ll build it.”
Boeing based the new design on work it had already done on a cargo aircraft. The high position of the cockpit and the iconic hump came about as a result of front-loading cargo doors. Both Boeing and Trippe thought the aircraft would ultimately find its niche as a freighter, with passengers transferring to the supersonic designs already on the drawing board. Trippe therefore decided not to alter the design too much, making the hump a passenger space rather than a crew resting area, which had been the original idea.
The 747—which began commercial life in January 1970—became an icon, with what is probably aviation’s most recognizable silhouette. At the time it was argued that Boeing was ‘betting the company’ on the new aircraft. If so, it was a gamble that paid off. About 1,500 747s have been delivered to date, carrying 3.5 billion people. The model has flown the equivalent of more than 100,000 return trips to the moon, some 78 billion nautical miles. A new variant, the 747-8, is to enter into service later this year.
Unfortunately, the 747 also contributed to the ultimate undoing of Pan Am. Too many were ordered early on and the 1973 oil crisis resulted in soaring operating costs. Pan Am also lost its unique position as America’s ‘Chosen Instrument’ for international services as the Civil Aeronautics Board began permitting larger airlines with more extensive domestic networks on to intercontinental routes, in direct competition with Pan Am. But by then, Trippe had stepped back from day‑to‑day management of the airline. He died in 1981, long before anyone but the most farsighted could have imagined a world without Pan Am. Trippe’s leadership ensured its legacy lives on as one of the most successful and innovative airlines ever to have graced the world stage.