JUAN TRIPPE: Pilot Of The Jet Age

Though he made flying seem glamorous, Pan Am's founder really helped the rest of us get onboard

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The jet age had begun, and the transformation was dramatic. The 707 flew almost twice as fast, at 605 m.p.h., as the propeller-driven Stratocruiser it had replaced. The 707 carried about twice as many people. And for the first time, it flew mostly "over" the weather: typically at 32,000 ft., much higher than the Stratocruiser, a civilian version of the B-29 bomber. But those were not the numbers that intrigued Trippe. While he brilliantly exploited the glamour of his first jet-set passengers--celebrities and VIPs--he was calculating the new jet-age math of what we call in our business "bums on seats"--the seat-mile cost.

The first 707s were flying with five-abreast seating, two on one side of the aisle, three on the other. Trippe switched to six abreast and cut fares, and the Pan Am jet clippers made flying "the pond" far more accessible. By 1965 the company was predicting that 35 million people would be flying international routes and that there would be a 200% increase by 1980.

The relentless Trippe had the big idea: he reasoned that mass air travel could come to the international routes only with a larger airplane--a much larger airplane. Trippe put the notion to his old friend Bill Allen, the boss of Boeing, saying he wanted a jet 2 1/2 times the size of the 707. It was a staggering request given the development cost of the 707. And Trippe didn't stop with size. Pam Am was operating the 707 with a seat-mile cost, at best, of 6.6[cents]. Trippe set for Boeing the goal of reducing that 30%.

"If you build it," said Trippe, "I'll buy it." "If you buy it," said Allen, "I'll build it."

My kind of guys.

Trippe said he would buy 25 airplanes. The price: $450 million, in those days big money. It wasn't yet called the jumbo (the Brits, I'm happy to say, came up with that one).

Pan Am under Trippe always rode shotgun with any new airplane it ordered. Trippe hired Charles Lindbergh to ride his airplanes incognito, and Lindbergh's ideas helped shape the cabin of the first jets. He also served as a pathfinder, exploring possible commercial air routes across the Atlantic and over the polar regions of Asia. Pan Am engineers crawled all over Boeing as the company conceived the outline for the new jet, the 747.

By pure chance, it was Trippe himself who gave the jumbo its signature bulge. In a rare lapse of vision, Trippe thought the 747 would be superseded by a big supersonic jet, as cheap to run as a subsonic jet. Some hope.

He therefore decreed that on the 747, pilots should sit above the flight deck so the nose could be opened up and take cargo. The 747's ultimate fate, he thought, would be as a flying Mack truck. Boeing showed him a wooden mock-up of the 747's flight deck, in the hump above the nose. He foraged around and came upon the space behind the flight deck, the rest of the hump. "What is this for?" he asked. "A crew rest area," said a Boeing engineer. "Rest area?" barked Trippe. "This is going to be reserved for passengers."

And so as co-creator of the 747, Trippe gave us the world's traveling machine. I launched Virgin Atlantic in June 1984 with 747s at the point when it was really shrinking the world and air travel was truly democratized, as Trippe intended.

Sadly, the 747 also sank Pan Am.

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