Love Letter

There Is Love After Pan Am

by Richard Bangs

Keeping it classy on Pan American World Airways, 1931. Photo: Courtesy of Florida State Library and Archives / Flickr Commons

I owe my career in travel, which has been largely agreeable, with undeniable moments of high pleasure, to Pan Am.

When I started Sobek, the adventure travel company, in the '70s, I had aspirations of worldwide exploration, of opening up arenas of adventure to a global audience. I had maps, charts, and globes, but little money. I had dreams of pioneering descents into the rivers of Turkey, Pakistan, New Guinea, Africa. Of hiking through India, Nepal, and the Andes. But as I made the rounds visiting various international airlines and asking for support, I was turned down again and again.

When I met Rick Laylan, the district sales manager in San Francisco for Pan Am, he immediately caught my passion, shared my vision, and understood how adventure travel was poised to become a significant sector in the travel trade. He offered to help fly me to far-away places to explore and set up new tours. And it worked. His support on Pam Am flights ignited an entire industry.

But I fell in love with Pan Am for other reasons. It was the Jackie O pillbox hats the hostesses self-importantly wore and the tunis blue uniforms. I loved that they loved flying. I felt courtly showing off my Pan Am bag, like an international man of mystery. I signed up on the waitlist for a Pan Am trip to the moon. I visited the ports in Macau and Foynes, Ireland, where the first Pan Am flying boats made their trans-oceanic stops. I even dated a Pan Am flight attendant (née stewardess). And I saw the world.

For decades Pan Am was the world's largest international airline, my ticket to adventure. So, like so many, I was devastated when Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991. It was like a family loss. Rick Laylan moved to United, and I started working with a raft of international carriers. None provided the same enchantment and pride of the skies.

There have been some wonderful experiences winging the world on various carriers: some have lovely staff, some offer impressive service, some even have tasty fare. But nothing compares to Pan Am — or at least how I remember it, and memory does tend to fetishize. Yet while getting there used to be half the fun, the typical long-haul flight is now characterized by a low hum of ordinariness, more efficiency than emotional richness.

Until recently. I was on a flight to Africa on an airline I had yet to ride, and it reminded me of the good old days. This is, of course, a completely unscientific evaluation, and results may vary. But I'd like to share my assessment: My new Pam Am is Emirates.

Here's why: I leave LAX late one Friday afternoon for a sixteen-hour flight to Dubai on a Boeing 777-300ER and immediately feel a difference. Attendants wear elegant high heels, hats (red pillboxes not dissimilar to Pan Am's), and beige scarves flowing sideways over one shoulder. Seats recline 180 degrees and sport winged headrests; plush eye covers are extra wide; there are noise-cancelling headphones, automatic window shades, even stars on the ceiling to lend some ambience. The seats give massages in four settings. A bottle of Voss water is an elbow away.

Emirates First Class

Emirates spares little with its 17-inch-wide screen and ridiculous 1200 channels, not to mention a tablet you can control from the furthest reaches of the chair. Emirates was awarded the World's Best Airline In-Flight Entertainment for the seventh year in some industry poll, and I can't disagree. So, I watch a marathon of movies. The only thing missing is popcorn.

Emirates started in 1985, as Pan Am was winding down, with two leased aircraft; it now has a fleet of 160 planes, and flies to some 116 destinations in 66 countries on six continents (including 21 cities in Africa). It links the world in a way Pan Am once did.

Of course, many long-haul carriers feature flat beds, Michelin-style menus, and the latest wizardry in entertainment systems, so the real secret sauce to making a transcontinental flight transcendent is the staff and the authenticity of their attitudes. Too many cabin crew members seem to see the job as a chore these days, not as a privilege, the glamour bleached away. Most of the Asian-based airlines are rightfully legendary for their attention to detail and supreme service. But the staff  almost always seems a little too professional, almost impenetrable, more Stepford Wives than gregarious independents. On my Emirates flight, though, the staff is chatty, humorous, and personal. They are all stationed in Dubai and enjoy free luxury living accommodations, no taxes, and big discounts at bars, restaurants, and health clubs. But even then one shares that she misses Los Angeles, "because you just can't get good BBQ ribs in Dubai."

Okay, using a hub means you have to connect. For most of my previous trips to Africa, I would connect through London, Frankfurt, Amsterdam, or Paris and wait interminable hours in sterile lounges or duty-free shops. But Emirates is transforming layovers into indulgent stays. I arrive in Dubai at 7:45 p.m., with a connection to Johannesburg nine hours later. Yikes. But Emirates has arranged a chauffeur, and I am whisked off to One&Only Royal Mirage, a compound of caliphate-style palaces on a private beach on the Arabian Gulf. I'm spirited by electric cart past gardens and fountains to a junior suite complete with king-size bed (sprinkled with rose petals), a great high-pressure shower, and traditional majlis sofas (an Arabic term for a room in a private home used to entertain guests). My bane as a frequent traveler is that whenever I happen into an extravagantly romantic suite, I am alone.

A heavenly few hours later, my driver shuttles me back to the all-Emirates Terminal 3 (larger than all of JFK), where I shuffle to the Emirates business lounge. It is, I must confess, an impressive sprawl, more high-end cruise ship than typical lounge. The length and width of two football fields, you almost need a GPS to navigate through the water features, plants, bars, and buffets. It has station after station of gourmet food of all ethnicities and stripes, with cooks at the ready, offering everything from tea and biscuits to a five-course meal with huge selections of wine and champagne. There are free massages, shoe shines, hot showers, wifi, and couchettes as good as most beds. I settle in with my laptop and a plate of tandoori chicken served with biryani, lachha salad, and mint chutney with a fine grand cru. I'm not ready to leave when the call comes to board.

But the next surprise is the A380. Emirates has more of the Airbus super jumbos than anyone, 90 in fleet, and some 243 more on order. The plane consumes 20 percent less fuel per seat than other large aircraft, and the fuel economy is better than that of hybrid cars.

The top floor of the plane is dedicated to first and business class. Unlike the 777, the seats are individual pods, personal sanctuaries with aisle access, and the beds are 79" long and flat. This is better than Pan Am first class used to be.

I head to the onboard lounge, a kind of luxury pub not dissimilar to what Pan Am provided in its original 747 configurations, but updated with a 42" LCD screen, a couple of plush sofas, and a parade of genuinely affable staff. Unlike most other airlines, which tend to primarily hire from their originating country, Emirates has gone broadly international. It is a kind of United Nations of attendants, and I think this is one of the reasons the gladness factor is so high. (When hiring for disposition and bearing, the pool gets a lot bigger if you're not limited to a single geography.) Just on my flight to Johannesburg I meet crew from Korea, Argentina, Uzbekistan, Japan, Egypt, South Africa, Lebanon, the UK, Bulgaria, Serbia, New Zealand, and Moldova.

But the real measure of the quality of an airline experience is whether you want it to end. It is only with regrets that we begin our descent into Johannesburg.