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 The Brancatelli File

joe THE FREQUENT FLYING
GENERATION GAP


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

March 3, 1998 -- My friend Martin Deutsch, who created Frequent Flyer magazine, can regale you with tales of how Pan Am laid on the sybaritic frills when it launched a new route or a new service.

My friend Coleman Lollar, who first cajoled me into covering business travel, wrote vivid and insightful articles about Pan Am's place in world aviation and American society.

My friend Gary Topping, who is my travel agent and a Pan Am alumni, can tell you about the pride he felt last year when he saw "a plane with the big blue ball" back on an airport tarmac.

Me? Well, uh, lemme see ... there's this time in 1982 when I flew Pan Am to Miami and they lost my luggage.

The divide between me and Deutsch, Topping and the late Coleman Lollar is not the difference between a rebellious student and his teachers. These guys taught me just about everything I know about business travel.

The difference between me and them is the generation gap that separates all frequent flyers. It is the chasm that explains the emotions--or lack of them--that business travelers experienced last weekend on hearing the news that the second incarnation Pan Am stopped flying.

Deutsch, Topping, Lollar--and some of you--are frequent flyers from Generation BD (Before Deregulation). Like me, however, a growing majority of you are frequent flyers from Generation AD (After Deregulation).

If you flew frequently in the days Before Deregulation (essentially, any time before 1980), Pan Am was the monarch of the skies. It represented all those things the rest of us know only as history: Impeccable service, a feeling of being special, a sense of travel being its own reward. A belief that, like Pan Am, frequent flyers were the "chosen instrument" of their God, their country, and their company.

I accept that the passing of Pan Am, first in 1991 and now its distant progeny, is a life-altering event for Generation BD frequent flyers. I can accept that Pan Am is bound up in their definition of themselves. I accept, without fully understanding, what my friend Martin Deutsch wrote in 1992: "Pan Am isn't just another defunct airline, but the airborne symbol of what we once naively called The American Century."

Yet for us Generation AD frequent flyers, Pan Am was and is just another airline. Its glory days are far behind it. For those of us who started living our lives on the road in the 1980s, Pan Am was never part of the solution. It was never part of our identity. By the time we got to the skies, Pan Am's planes were old, its service crystallized, its moment in history gone.

Besides, for Generation AD frequent flyers, business travel is a commodity, pure and simple. It is a chore. And if Generation AD travelers identify with anything at all on the road, it sure ain't an airline. A frequent-flyer program? Maybe. But an airline? Never.

What's saddest about the new Pan Am's collapse after 18 months is how its legendary past continues to obscure today's travel reality.

When Pan Am president David Banmiller walked into Judge A. Jay Cristol's bankruptcy court, Cristol did not see an airline with $147 million of debt and just $50 million in assets. He saw "mom and apple pie ... and a glorious part of American history." He even quoted a line--how Pan Am "taught the world how to fly"--from an old Pan Am commercial.

Cristol did not see today's Pan Am: A tiny start-up airline that had lost $127 million in the last nine months, a carrier that had the wrong routes, the wrong planes and the wrong business plan. He did not see a carrier with less than a $1 million on hand. Instead, he saw a chance to make "a success story instead of one of those sad footnotes in the history of Chapter 11."

Pan Am may, in fact, fly again. As of Sunday afternoon, Banmiller was talking about flying charters and maybe an investment from Carl Icahn, the tough-as-nails corporate raider who proved at TWA that he has both a weakness for and an inability to run airlines.

Me? All I can think of is my friend Guy Giuffre, who invested no end of time teaching me how to be a journalist and a human being. Giuffre once ran newspapers for William Randolph Hearst, yet also somehow managed to be named the Nash-Rambler "Dealer of the Year" in 1953, the year I was born.

I met Giuffre 22 years later and found out about his automotive sideline because he appeared in the office wearing the tie clip he received for being named the 1953 Nash-Rambler Dealer of the Year.

"Wow," I remember saying. "I saw an old Nash Metropolitan in the junkyard the other day. Those were amazing cars."

I never forget his answer.

"That's why I wear the tie clip," Giuffre said quietly. "It reminds me that things change. Nobody buys Nashs or Ramblers today and it doesn't mean much that I was the Nash-Rambler Dealer of the Year in 1953."

This column originally appeared at TheTrip.com.

Copyright 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.