Juan Trippe: Air Travel for All


As Americans stand in those long airport security lines this summer, poised to jet off to national parks, family reunions, and romantic getaways, they should have ample time to remember the man who first introduced the concept of a "tourist class" -- that's you and me -- to American aviation: Pan American Airways founder Juan Trippe.

Since the moment Trippe started Pam Am as a 28-year-old former bond salesman, he turned the fledgling commercial aviation industry on its ear: Pan Am flew where no one else would fly, marketed to customers no one was wanted, and took chances no other airline would take. As a result, Trippe stood astride the industry for 41 years as head of a company that became the first to fly across the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans, the first to put American-made jets into commercial use, the first to order the Boeing 747 jumbo jet, and the first choice of the U.S. government to serve as an emergency carrier in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

Juan Terry Trippe was born in Sea Bright, N.J., on June 27, 1899, to a prosperous New York investment-banking family. After college at Yale, where the started the Yale Flying Club, Trippe dutifully prepared to enter his father's business, Trippe & Co., by joining Lee, Higginson & Co. as a bond salesman in 1922.

SPEEDY DELIVERY. Fortunately for air travel and unluckily for the practice of selling bonds, Trippe and his fellow Yale aviation club pilots heard in 1923 that the U.S Navy was selling nine surplus World War I planes. A group of them bought the planes and formed Long Island Airways, which ran charter sightseeing tours and performed occasional delivery work for movie companies (studios flourished in the New York area back then, before Hollywood became synonymous with movies).

By 1927, Trippe was ready to parlay his experience at Long Island Airways into something bigger. With the backing of two financial titans -- Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney and John Hambleton -- Trippe bid successfully for the first U.S. international airmail contract, between Florida and Cuba. Later that year, Trippe merged his new company with a rival, Pan American Airways, forming a company with two airplanes, 24 employees, and the goal of, according to Trippe, "providing mass air transportation for the average man at rates he can afford to pay."

Soon, Pan Am had procured mail contracts between Florida and Puerto Rico and Florida and Panama. But Trippe's real focus was still on human cargo.

ABOVE THE WEATHER. To this end, he hired Charles Lindbergh as a consultant to Pan Am in the early 1930s to explore the possibility of commercial air travel over the polar regions and across the Atlantic. In one letter, Lindbergh presciently wrote Trippe that, "I believe that in the future aircraft will detour bad weather areas by flying above them rather than around them."

On Nov. 22, 1935, Pan Am's "China Clipper," built by Martin (forerunner of Martin Marietta and now Lockheed Martin) to the airline's specifications, completed the first transpacific flight, a six-day journey from San Francisco to Manila. Pan Am's service to the Philippines was established in 1936, and its New York-to-Lisbon route -- flown by the "Yankee Clipper" -- was initiated in 1939.

During World War II, Pan Am's market dominance in South America made it an obvious choice to use its system of airfields to ferry military personnel and material, and the airline flew more than 90 million miles for the U.S. government. Trippe was later recognized for leading Pan Am's war-era efforts when he was awarded the Medal of Merit from Secretary of War Secretary of War Henry Stimson in 1943. Trippe, who was a hard-driving negotiator and leader, extended his loyalties beyond the U.S., often chartering Pan Am planes to deliver humanitarian aid and emergency supplies to Latin American countries suffering natural disasters.

TOO THE MOON? After the war, Trippe concentrated on fulfilling his dream of making flying affordable. In 1952 -- in the face of fierce resistance from other airlines -- he launched a low-fare service on flights over the North Atlantic. Two classes of passengers, first and tourist (later called economy) eventually became the norm, but not before Heathrow Airport in London refused to land planes offering tourist class, forcing Pan Am's European "hub" to move to Shannon, Ireland.

Trippe also pushed Boeing to expand the size of commercial jets, and Boeing responded with the 747, which was more than twice as large as the 707 and made air travel even more affordable. In 1968, Trippe spent $600 million on Boeing's first crop of the giant planes, the last big move he made before retiring later that year.

Trippe's zeal for the 747 and the benefits it afforded the common man, however, also contained the seeds of Pan Am's demise. Air travel suffered in the early 1970s, and the carrier was stuck with too many of the giant planes. By the time Trippe died at 81 in New York City in 1982, Pan Am was already shedding unprofitable routes, and it finally went out of business in 1991.

Pan Am's ultimate fate, however, does nothing to negate its founder's aggressiveness in bringing air travel to the masses. As James Landis, a contemporary of Trippe's who once served as the head of the Civil Aeronautics Board, once said: "If anybody ever flies to the moon, the very next day Trippe will ask CAB to authorize regular service."

Although it never did come to that, Stanley Kubrick's 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey did use Pam Am as the future provider of commercial lunar travel. We'll likey have to wait for another Juan Trippe, however, to galavanize enough support for lunar travel for the masses. As part of its 75th anniversary celebration, BusinessWeek is presenting a series of weekly profiles for the greatest innovators of the past 75 years, from science to government. BusinessWeek Online is joining in by adding more online-only profiles of The Great Innovators. In late September, 2004, BusinessWeek will publish a special commemorative issue on Innovation

By Mike Brewster in New York


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