Did You Know...?
Series Air Dates
Exec. Producer Bio
Exec. Producer Interview
Photo & Video Credits
In the late 1950s, Juan Trippe, the head of Pan Am, was ready to take one last gamble. Trippe's goal since the end of World War II had been to transform air travel from an elite experience into one that was affordable for the masses. By the early 1960s, air travel had become so popular that airports were struggling to handle the constant stream of small jets. To solve the problem, Trippe envisioned a jumbo jet, a true ocean liner of the air. Trippe sold Boeing President William Allen on his idea for the new airplane, and years of development later, Boeing rolled out the world's first jumbo jet - the 747. The jumbo jet proved to be a huge gamble not only for Trippe, but for Boeing, too, which had been driven to the brink of bankruptcy. And yet, as orders from airlines wanting to keep up with Pan Am came pouring in, it would prove to be one of the best investments the company had ever made. The 747 was the last in a long line of airplanes that Juan Trippe insisted had to be built. Trippe's vision of a world where more people flew - and for less money - would only continue to gather steam.
From the very first days of flying passengers, the U.S. government had regulated airline routes and ticket prices so that all carriers would stay strong without having to work too hard. The airlines were having trouble attracting new passengers because the agency overseeing regulation, the Civil Aeronautics Board, actually prohibited competition by setting ticket prices artificially high. Regulation was inhibiting the industry. Out in Texas, one tiny airline would have an idea. In 1966, Rollin King and Herb Kelleher came up with the seemingly crazy idea of starting their own regional airline. Southwest's business soon began to take off, helped by an aggressive ad campaign with flight attendants in hot pants selling Southwest as "the love airline." But beneath all the hype, Southwest really succeeded by being simple in an increasingly complicated world. Ultimately, Southwest showed how an airline that bypassed federal regulations could spur rapid growth by offering low-cost fares. In short order, the Southwest model was going to change everything.
The Love Airline...
In 1978, a dramatic transformation was taking place in the airline business. After more than four decades of oversight, Congress passed a law allowing airlines to choose their own routes and set their own fares. They would have to live or die based on the marketplace. The era of deregulation was born. On the plus side, tickets would be cheaper. On the minus side, airlines could be destroyed. Aviation was going to change from a labor of love to a business where the bottom line ruled. As the market expanded, a new type of airline executive emerged, more trained in navigating business deals than flying through turbulent skies. Probably the most well known, and controversial, among this new breed was Frank Lorenzo.
The New Breed...
Lorenzo was determined to build an airline empire. To expand his network of air routes, Lorenzo began acquiring faltering airlines. His approach was sometimes likened to a hostile takeover. Lorenzo's hard-line financial approach revealed the darker side of deregulation. His cutthroat tactics would soon destroy one of the oldest and most respected carriers in the business. Lorenzo acquired a faltering Eastern Airlines and tried similar cost-cutting measures as at Continental. But this time he had overreached and Eastern, which had been flying since 1928, was grounded for good - a victim of the brave new world of deregulation.
The Death of Giants...
At the same time that aviation was entering a new frontier, two of the giants who had started it all were about leave the scene. In July of 1974, Charles Lindbergh was in a hospital in New York City suffering from lymphatic cancer. Lindbergh called to tell his old friend Juan Trippe that the end was near. The paths of these two men had been intertwined for over forty years. Throughout their journey, they shared the belief that aviation could benefit mankind. Juan Trippe, now retired, was about to suffer another loss - Pan Am. Operating within the new rules of deregulation was a tremendous challenge for all major carriers, but no one was less prepared for it than Pan Am. The beginning of the end for Pan Am came in 1974 when the airline purchased expensive 747s in a weak market. Adding to the problem, they had no domestic routes. In a last attempt to acquire domestic rights, Pan Am purchased National Airlines. But a fierce bidding war with Frank Lorenzo forced them to pay much more than the airline was worth. The end was not far off. In 1993, Pan Am's name and trademarks were sold for a little over one million dollars. The airline that Juan Trippe created was gone forever.
As commercial aviation entered an era of ferocious competition, airlines weren't the only ones falling by the wayside. One of Boeing's American competitors, Lockheed, gambled on building their own jumbo jet. The L10-11 was hailed as a magnificent plane, but it turned out to be a financial disaster. Failing to recoup its investment, Lockheed was forced to leave the business in 1983. Boeing's only other American competitor, a faltering McDonnell-Douglas, barely managed to survive a similar debacle. It seemed that Boeing was destined to enjoy a virtual monopoly - not only in America, but in the world. For the Europeans it was a difficult idea to stomach.
The Battle of the Titans...
In their determination to compete with Boeing, the Europeans came up with a remarkable collaborative agreement to create a new commercial aircraft manufacturer, Airbus Industrie. The company would be comprised of German, French, Spanish and British manufacturers. A historic milestone was reached in 1977 when Airbus made their first sale to an American airline. From then on, the orders steadily rose until Airbus became a legitimate competitor of Boeing. The battle between these two titans of the industry represents two different ways of doing business, two different cultures--American and European. Boeing is a private corporation that has in hard times relied on government contracts. Airbus, in contrast, is a government-funded consortium facing the pressure of turning a profit. One key confrontation came in 1997 when Airbus made a move to acquire McDonnell-Douglas. Boeing, in a lightning swift counter-attack, quickly made a better offer and snatched up its only remaining American competitor.
Now, the key battleground for Boeing and Airbus is the future. The 3XX is Airbus' grand vision for the future. This super jumbo is a double-decker airplane that would hold as many as 650 passengers. Considering the vast sums of money at stake, its likely that Airbus and Boeing will be locked in a battle for years to come, each trying to capture new markets before the other one gets there first. Of course, for most people who fly, they have a far higher priority: getting there safely.
By 1960, the technology to safely manage the skies was overwhelmed by the amount of air traffic. A tragic midair collision occurred over Brooklyn, New York when an air traffic controller couldn't keep two planes apart on his radar screen. The furor that this crash generated led in 1965 to the installation of computers to make the skies safer. Computers throughout the 1970's and 80's revolutionized the process, increasing radar range and giving controllers three-dimensional information of airplane's altitude as well as its location. Today, we have returned to a situation not so different from the early 1960's. The number of airliners in the world has more than tripled and the technology is having a hard time keeping up. The experts are beginning to talk about overcrowded skies and gridlocked airports.
The Art of Flying...
No matter how much we fly, for the vast majority of us, it remains, at least in part, an unnatural experience. Yet, if we sometimes can't help giving our fear of flying free reign, perhaps we should also be willing to take a look at the other side of that coin - what an incredible thing it is to fly. Here it is easy to remember the early days of aviation and the pioneers that put their lives on the line to making flying a reality. We are now a century removed from the birth of powered flight. During that time the dreams and accomplishments of aviation's visionaries have transformed the way we live.