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

  • By business school standards, Juan Trippe was not a model chief executive. He didn't delegate well. He made big deals without telling his top managers. He almost single-handedly built a world airline, Pan American, but often acted as if he owned the world. He also had a vision that would change it, at least as regards airline travel. While his Pan Am does not survive today, his vision does.

    He graduated from Yale in 1921 and worked briefly on Wall Street but got thoroughly bored. Planes fascinated him, though. Trippe was convinced that the future of travel was in the air. With an inheritance, Trippe began a business with Long Island Airways in New York, a taxi service for the well-heeled. When that failed, he raised money from some wealthy Yale pals and joined Colonial Air Transport, which won the first U.S. airmail contract, between New York City and Boston. That same crowd liked to play in the Caribbean (excellent choice), where he created Pan American Airways Inc. from a merger of three groups. Trippe began service with a flight from Key West, Fla., to Havana, Cuba, on Oct. 28, 1927.

    What characterized Trippe thereafter was an uncanny ability to pace his airline's growth with the range of the airliner as it slowly evolved: first crawling from island to island across the Caribbean and into Mexico, then extending to Central and South America.

    Finally, it was Trippe's backing of the flying boat, the first Pan Am Flying Clippers, that pioneered global routes: across the Pacific and, in the late 1930s, across the Atlantic. By the end of World War II, Trippe had in place a route system that was truly global.

    Before anyone else, he believed in airline travel as something to be enjoyed by ordinary mortals, not just a globe-trotting elite. In 1945 other airlines didn't think or act that way. Trippe decided to introduce a "tourist class" fare from New York to London. He cut the round-trip fare more than half, to $275 ($1,684 in today's dollars, which makes current pricing a bargain, right?). This went over like a lead balloon in the industry, where air fares were fixed by a cartel, the International Air Transport Association; it didn't want to hear about the tourist class. Incredibly, Britain closed its airports to Pan Am flights that had tourist seats. Pan Am was forced to switch to remote Shannon, Ireland. The industry's aversion to competition and making travel affordable was to have a long life, as Sir Freddie Laker would discover in the 1970s and Virgin Atlantic nearly a decade later.

    Trippe managed to find one route where the cartel could not thwart him: New York to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Pan Am's one-way fare was $75, and the flights were packed. Finally, in 1952, Trippe's relentless attacks on the I.A.T.A. forced all airlines to accept the inevitability of tourist class. But by then his vision had taken off for its next destination.

    Flying the oceans was still mostly for the rich and famous. For millions of others, it was just a dream or a once-in-a-lifetime binge. Trippe saw that the jets being introduced by Boeing and Douglas could mark the end of that, and he ordered plenty of them. In October 1958, a Pan Am Boeing 707 left New York for its first scheduled flight to Paris.

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