International First Class on Pan Am, an experience like no other
As a member of management at Pan Am, I was afforded unlimited free first class travel, on a space-available basis. I have flown on more than 125 international first class flights throughout the world on Pan Am in my four years with this great airline. It has been called the “golden age” of air travel, and for good reason.
I had experienced some great first class service on other international airlines prior to joining Pan Am in 1980, but Pan Am was the crème de la crème. Flying for me was and still is an experience unto itself, a major component of any trip, and not just a means of transportation. The journey means as much as the destination-it is a celebration of flight and travel.
FIRST CLASS INTERNATIONAL SERVICE ON PAN AM
The key to great service began with the flight attendants, or stewardesses (this was an acceptable term), who were head and shoulders above their counterparts on other airlines. Safety was paramount, and a rigorous training program was conducted in a mock up aircraft cabin, exactly like the cabin of a 747. All possible emergency contingencies were covered, including evacuating a full aircraft in 90 seconds, rapid decompression, smoke in the cabin, hijacking, medical emergencies, deploying the exit slides, and even inflating the aircraft raft in a swimming pool and getting others in were all required to be certified as a flight attendant. Safety was even more critical back in the 70’s and 80’s, because even though flying was relatively safe, there were more incidents and accidents back then.
Service was paramount for international passengers and Pan Am crews were exceptional at meeting the higher expectations of the international dignitaries, politicians, corporate executives, and jet-setters on board-a very sophisticated and difficult group to please, but Pan Am provided service with a professional, dignified yet friendly approach. Grooming and appearance were a major factor in being hired, with make-up, hosiery, gait and weight all considered. A typical applicant had to speak a second language fluently, and be measured for ‘bone caliper” to determine appropriate weight. A typical 5’, 5” woman was required to weight less than 125 pounds, and if small framed, 114 pounds, including clothes! A walk in front of the interviewer to assess gait and posture was required. Teeth had to be straight and white, and no visible marks or blemishes were allowed. I am not talking hyperbole when I say attractiveness, style and appearance were a critical determinate for the position.
The longer haul international flights on Pan Am were mostly operated with spacious 747’s, which curved more narrowly in the front than other aircraft, affording a great view. You could even see partially forward. We loved the beauty outside the aircraft-and it seemed to improve with each drink, or glass of great wine, or champagne, or port, or after dinner drink, all which flowed generously as we raced through the sky to another exotic destination.
Pan Am had always been the leader and innovator in air service, and many of the service specials that are standard today were novel back in the late 70’s and early 80’s-Improving seat design was one of them. Pan Am came out with the first “Sleeperette Seats” in the air, which were soft and cushy and reclined 60 degrees, making it much easier to sleep. But sleep was not the most important thing on long-haul flights for me, my wife, and my friends John Barrett and Al Brown, who were also Pan Am employees. A fellow traveler called the experience “insanely indulgent” and I couldn’t agree more with her assessment.
The start of your first class experience came as you checked in at the separate first class section of the Pan Am Worldport at New York’s JFK airport, which at the time was considered a modern space age design. There was a completely separate circular pod and entry and vehicle ramp for first class only at the front of the terminal. A red-coated special agent was there to greet you as you exited your vehicle. After the agent checked your luggage and printed your boarding pass, which clearly indicated “first class,” you were escorted to the VIP Club, called the “Clipper Club,” which was upstairs over the main part of the terminal with a panoramic view of the airport and New York City. This was not your typical airline club. Those present embodied power, money and fame–here were high flyers, executives, sheiks, the rich and famous, and now, us. Although a little star-struck, I didn’t feel out of place or intimidated, I think the best descriptive word would be “fascinated.”
I often wondered how much money the bartender at the Clipper Club made in a year. He was very outgoing, people were usually in a good mood traveling, and he often remembered names and the places people had been or were going, and he could spin a good tale. Since drinks were complimentary, most everyone gave him a tip. There was even a bit of a competition to see who would tip more. The businessman would throw him a 5-dollar bill, then a celebrity a 10-dollar bill, then a sheik a 20-dollar bill, then we would give him four quarters-hey, we were airline employees, we didn’t get paid much. But we were always in a great mood rubbing elbows with this elite crowd about to board a luxurious 747 to Europe or Asia or South America with Dom Perignon, Chateaux Margot, and Chateaubriand awaiting us.
Of course, First Class would be boarded ahead of business class and coach, and since the 747 was so big, you would board at separate doors. We would board on the jet bridge to the left. It is always an exciting moment turning left on an airplane-avoid turning right at all costs!
You were greeted at the door by an attractive flight attendant (of appropriate height, weight and gait), and personally escorted to your seat; your coat or jacket was hung up for you in a separate closet. On your seat was a large pillow and comfortable blanket.
Prior to pushback they offered you a pre-flight drink of champagne, such as Krug Grande Cuvee, one of my favorites, or orange juice, or a combination of both, a Mimosa. This was followed by a choice of magazines and newspapers, both local and ones from your destination. After this, a fancy menu was handed out which included details about the elaborate meal service for the entire flight including beverages and drinks. On the cover was a different Pan Am destination drawn by a famous artist, or a special select flight from days past. Most international flights had multiple meals served. You were then given a nice amenities kit specifically designed for either man or woman, with fine toiletries, shaving items, towels and an eye-mask for sleep. This was prior to the noise-canceling technology, but the earphones at your seat had large cups and were the best quality for the time. Soothing music was played during your time on the ground. Upon request, there was Pan Am logoed stationary and Pan Am flight themed playing cards and post cards, which could be written and handed to your flight attendant for mailing at your destination.
As the engines were started and you taxied away from the gate, the 747 afforded a great panoramic type view of the airport, the tarmac , the taxiways and runways, as well as other planes To this day, no other plane affords this type of spectacular view. Not even the bigger AB380 can make such a claim. The 747 is the only commercial aircraft where you can be seated forward of the pilots, and in the first row you felt like you were in your own private plane. Seat 1A or 1J is my favorite. The engines had their own peculiar type of sound due to the higher by-pass engine cowlings and fan blades. This became music to my ears. I have many hours of video of this sound and can still go to sleep by it. But sleep was going to have to wait a few hours now, as the main n-flight service was about to begin.
After take off with the plane passing through about 10,000 feet in a smooth climb, drink orders were taken. Sometimes this would be done on the ground, if time allowed. For a seasoned traveler who enjoys the service, next you would hear the clink of glasses and ice, as the drinks were being made-more music to your ears. You would settle in with your drink, which is one of my favorite times as you started to relax on a long-haul flight. The liquors were superb, such as Johnnie Walker Black label Scotch, Stolichnaya Vodka, Fine Bombay gin, or Jack Daniels Black Bourbon. Also popular at the time were Aperitifs such as Sherry, Dubonnet, Compare or Champagne Cocktail. Most passengers at the time would be dressed as if they were at a fine club. It was as if the dress and style of the patrons at Rick’s in Casablanca had been boarded on your 747. Unlike flights today, travelers kept their window shades open to enjoy the view, and this added to the overall ambience of the flight.
Premium domestic and international wines were served as requested, usually representative of the countries you were flying between. Chateau Pouilly-Fuisse, Chateau Margoux, or Chateau Latour Martillac were common.
With your drink, served in crystal glasses, came warm nuts and an aperitif. The flight attendants were in no rush to serve the seven-course meal; it was to be enjoyed leisurely. And a second drink was offered for those who wanted one. There was no rush to put the tray and linen out, as this was a cocktail hour in the sky, to be enjoyed. Often you would see a glorious sunset if you left in the early evening hours, such as to Europe from the US. And sunsets at 38,000 feet after a few drinks were just that much better than on the ground-sometimes if the sun just set prior to departure you would see it rise and set again as your plane climbed out. Where else can you see the sun set twice in the same day? Maybe in space, but they don’t serve Johnnie Walker Black or Chateaux Margot in space.
After at least an hour, it was time to put out the tablecloth and linen. You were given individual crystal salt and peppershakers, bread and butter, as well as a vase with a flower for each passenger. The 747 had tables for two facing each other upstairs if you desired, another Pan Am first.
Now was the time to ascend the spiral staircase to the upper deck. It will always be an iconic part of the glory days of travel. Unfortunately, they have been done away with on newer 747 models due to safety concerns, as some passengers, often a little tipsy, or with a little turbulence, would take a more direct route head first down to the lower level.
Proper cutlery, fine linen table clothes and napkins were set up with two glasses, one for water and one for wine. Now came the hors d’oeuvre’s and appetizer service, which in my opinion, is still to this day the best ever in the sky. Back then TWA and Northwest were the main US carrier competition in the international market, and later United, American and National, but there was no comparison. And Pan Am was equal to or better than the real competition of the finest international airlines such as Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Singapore, Swissair, KLM, and British Airways. Better than Qantas, South African, Lufthansa and Air France- and yes I have flown premium first class on all of them–spoiled, spoiled, spoiled. I’m the first one to admit it, but also the first one to appreciate it. The hors d’oeuvre’s were then placed on a large service cart covered with linen, which could be rolled right in front of your seat and table because the large pitch, or distance between seats, was wide enough to allow it. This made the service seem all the more personal.
You had a choice of any or all of the follow delectable appetizers:
· Molossol or Sevruga Caviar with all the accouterments such as sour cream, cut onion, egg white, egg yoke, and blinis–of course, you had a choice of fine Russian vodka to go with your caviar
· French Foie Gras
· Individual Lobster canapés
· Prosciutto with melon
· Quail Eggs (they are very good)
· Shrimp with cocktail sauce
· And, of course, a bottle of premium champagne was nearby on ice in a bucket
After an appropriate time to enjoy the hors’doerves, a cart was rolled up to your seat, again covered in linen, with a large wooden bowl and wooden spoons to mix your salad. You had a choice of dressing, and could request freshly made caesar salad if you so desired.
While all this was going on, you could smell the aroma of the roast being cooked. The Pan Am flight attendants had good ovens to work with on the 747 and could cook the aged beef to perfection, asking how you liked it prepared. As an alternative entrée, you had a choice of fish, such as Norwegian salmon, fillet of sole, or trout, but only if you passed on the lobster thermador. Usually a pasta dish was an alternative main course selection, as well as a local dish from the country you were visiting, such as weinersnitzel from Germany, chicken curry bombay from India, or lamb from New Zealand.
If you chose the roast, it would be presented on a cart with a wooden cutting board and carved with an appropriate cutlery knife right in front of you. Traditional accompaniments such as vegetable bouquet, potatoes maison or rice pilaf would accompany your main course, with the appropriate wines. And “Risi e Bisi” another Pan Am special, was a popular rice side dish, long before risotto became popular.
Again after adequate time had passed, and timed to the preferred speed of each passenger, the next course was a selection of international cheeses on the cart; brie, camembert, gouda, and aged cheddar, with crackers and fruit. Of course you were offered fine port to go with your cheese.
And last but not least, you had a selection of desserts. It might be German black forrest cake or grand marnier Soufflé-how about Pan Am’s famous Cherries Jubilee? And always there was an ice-cream sundae with fruit toppings, hot fudge and fresh whipped cream. On the same dessert cart would be after dinner drinks; grand marnier, kailua, drambuie and fine Cognac VSOP. After that, a choice of coffee, capachinno or tea-maybe you would like to have a Kailua or Grand Marnier in your coffee? Go right ahead, there is no calorie count on these menu items.
Is anyone ready for a nice sleep? You can now stretch out on your cushy Sleepertte seat with wool blanket and pillow as the soothing background hum of the engines and slight bounce of the plane lulls you to a pleasant dreamtime, maybe aided by “a little” drink or two. If you must, close your window shades. Today’s travelers seem much too eager to finish or even skip their meal, lower their shades and take out their laptops, watch a movie, or sleep. In my opinion, we have lost some of the elegant ambiance of flying.
After a nice sleep, often 6 hours of more, it was time to open your shades to see a spectacular sunrise. Is that the Alps I see or maybe the Himalayas? Sometimes it would be a Brazilian rainforest, or somewhere over the vast Pacific Ocean.
After you awakened, on eastbound flights you normally were served breakfast, on westbound, depending on the length of the flight, either a second meal or delicious snack. For breakfast, you could select a continental or full breakfast. You had a choice of juice, fruit, coffee and breakfast breads, a danish, or croissants, followed by a specialty dish such as eggs Florentine or benedict. Often fight attendants would ask you what type of egg dish you desired and prepare it from scratch-no problem, this is Pan Am’s finest service.
Flying westbound, on longer haul flights you would get a mid-flight snack of sandwiches with a sweet treat like clotted cream and scones out of the United Kingdom. Clotted cream might kill you, but you would die happy. I had never tasted anything so creamy, mellow and delectable. The first time I ever had it was on a Pan Am London-New York flight.
On shorter westbound flights of 7-9 hours this would conclude the meal service, on longer flights such as to Asia, you would be served another meal before landing, not as elaborate as the main meal, but who could eat much more anyway? Usually you would get a pasta dish, maybe a delicious Asian style soup, maybe steak sandwiches with a salad and a glass or two of red wine?
You knew it was a great flight when you were disappointed to be landing, but another adventure awaited you, often to a new city, and you also had the return first class flight awaiting you, with service just as good as the outbound flight. They would hold back the business and coach passengers when deplaning, so you would get to customs ahead of the crowd. In some countries you even had a special premium lane to expedite the entry processing.
Life was pretty good at this point. It is an overused cliché, but I can’t think of a more appropriate way to describe your Pan Am First Class experience than “heaven can wait.”