By Mason Hsieh
May 24, 2017
I’ve always been told Pan Am was in my blood. My grandfather was a Pan Am station master. My dad grew up flying Pan Am and planned on becoming a pilot. But I was born two years after they went out of business and was raised on my dad’s wistful tales of the company’s heyday: a time of dining carts, spiral staircases, and true luxury in flight. I distinctly recall rolling my eyes, writing it off as a bunch of tall tales told through a nostalgia-warped lens. It wasn’t until I bought him tickets to Air Hollywood’s immersive “Pan Am Experience” and boarded their meticulously set decorated aircraft that I began to understand what he meant.
The Pan Am Experience was like stepping back in time to a brighter, sweeter, more alcoholic past that I had never known. For three hours, we were served a five-course meal and poured bottomless cocktails all aboard a stationary Pan Am 747 plane that aimed to recreate what their flights were like back in the 1980’s. While the whole experience was delectable, a masterfully constructed immersive dining experience, it all felt a bit too polished to me. The service was too good. The food was too delicious. While evocative of a Pan Am inspired meal, I was convinced there was no way air travel could have ever been this decadent and personable—that was until my dad turned to me and casually said, “This is exactly how I remember it.”
I was floored. This fictional flight was unlike anything I had ever experienced. As a child of the 90’s, I grew up in a world where flying was synonymous with random pat downs, liquid limits, and baggage fees. A world where the planes and airlines kept getting bigger, while everything else seemed to shrink—seats, legroom, meals, and patience. The first time I saw the viral United Airlines “re-booking” assault, where passenger David Dao was beaten and dragged off the plane by airport police, I distinctly recall being horrified but not surprised. This was not out of the realm of things airlines could do—an atmosphere of travel so depersonalized and dehumanizing that a passenger could be literally dragged off an airplane like a piece of luggage.
But in that Pan Am cabin, I realized travel had not always been like this. What happened? How did we get from carving stations and warm stewardesses to the United body snatchers? It wasn’t until I heard the Pan Am jingle on the intercom that I realized what it was.
“You can’t beat the experience. Pan Am.”
Travel used to be an experience. Whereas my generation saw it as a passing state, the most efficient way to get from one destination to another, travel used to be a destination in and of itself—something to be enjoyed, not simply a means to an ends. As I dug into this paradigm shift, I realized this may be at the core of what has been lost. By losing sight of travel as an experience and reframing it as one of efficiency, we have established a dynamic that not only justifies, but also reinforces the depersonalization of travel. To the passengers, a flight is now a passive commute: an inconvenient sky bound layover between destinations. To airlines, passengers have become human cargo: to be packed into shrinking seats and growing cabins to maximize profits. As this system becomes more efficient and cost effective, it’s easy to see how this utilitarian lens can be perverted to justify dragging an unconscious man off an airplane—just an extra body on an overbooked flight.
From the United debacle, we have seen countless cries for corporate apologies, policy reforms, and government interventions. While these are important, I worry the issue is much more deep-seated than that. Hearing that Pan Am jingle, I realized to truly course correct this culture, we need to reframe our relationship to travel and re-establish it as something that holds inherent value—not simply a utilitarian commute, but something to be looked forward to, enjoyed, and respected. We need to make travel an experience again.
I think the Pan Am Experience is a perfect exemplar. While the food and company were top notch, what really made the flight stand out was the interaction scheme. You weren’t just handed peanuts to snack on while you waited for the “fasten seatbelt light.” You were given food, drinks, and entertainment tailored to your specifications. Everything was treated with special care and attention, and suddenly you felt special, just like the people and space around you. The interaction scheme stood out because both performer and audience were invested in the world and exchange. However, if one or both parties refused to engage with the other with the same level of respect, this immersive magic would evaporate. Thus, both must interact with other and the world with the same degree of care and engagement to maintain this seamless immersion.
I believe that is the key to weaning our culture from this utilitarian view of travel and reviving a sense of humanity in flight. Even in these liminal spaces, we need to interact with one another and the spaces themselves as if they hold inherent value. Not only do we need the airlines to treat their passengers as valued guests again, but we, as passengers need to see flights and the people on them as inherently valuable as well—not just a cost effective inconvenience en route from LAX to JFK, but something to be looked forward to and respected. If we can integrate this reciprocal flow of engagement and care, I believe we can re-brand and divert our quickly depersonalizing relationship to travel. And while we may not go back to caviar and bottomless mimosas, I have faith that all of us, even United, may one day fly the friendly skies again.