Revisiting the Ghosts of Airlines Past

Nostalgic for the Pan Am days? You're not alone.

Feb. 16, 2014— -- Not long ago, I heard someone talking about how much he missed Continental Airlines and asking, "Where did it go, anyway?"

Off to the Great Tarmac in the Sky, thanks to its merger with United a few years back. But look closely at the tails of United's planes -- see that globe logo? That was Continental's. Nice to see one last vestige of a once-great airline.

If you've ever wondered whatever happened to your favorite airline, I've got some answers.

Allegheny Airlines

For some northeast travelers, this gritty Pittsburgh-based carrier will forever be known as "Agony Airlines," though it actually comes from blue-blood stock, founded by members of the DuPont family. The original name (back in the thirties) was All American Airways and in a way, Allegheny has come full circle.

What happened: The little regional grew up, renamed itself US Airways but will soon go back to its "American" roots after American Airlines completes merger housekeeping chores, such as rebranding its newly acquired US Airways planes. There won't even be a tail logo left. But on the other hand, American's recently updated look is not all that different from US Airways' stylized flag motif. So maybe Allegheny does live on in spirit.

Northwest Orient

That was never Northwest's official name but the company added "Orient" to its advertising as a nod to the days when NWA carried more passengers across the Pacific than any other airline. Fun fact: Northwest began as a humble mail delivery service for the post office, ferrying packages and letters between Chicago and the Twin Cities.

What happened: After weathering growing pains, including a two-week long pilot lockout in the 1990s and a bankruptcy in the last decade, Northwest was finally acquired by Delta in 2008. For a revealing trip down memory lane, I highly recommend the Northwest Airlines archive at the Minnesota Historical Society, which includes all kinds of records, ads and even a few letters from famed aviator Amelia Earhart. Nothing sensational in that correspondence, but her letters do reveal Earhart's vast, encyclopedic knowledge of the era's aircraft.

Pan Am

Its full name was Pan American Airways, but to legions of travelers around the globe it will always be Pan Am, the airline that kept expanding and expanding. Its magic is remembered fondly to this day, no doubt helped by the recent TV show Pan Am -- pretty melodramatic but fun to watch. (I asked a former Pan Am flight attendant what she thought of it and was told she and her colleagues were generally way too tired for any extra-curricular hijinks).

What happened: The 1973 oil crisis, lack of domestic routes, increased competition, all contributed to the carrier's problems. So did terrorism: In 1988 a bomb went off aboard Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all on the plane and several on the ground. As Thomas Petzinger wrote in his book, "Hard Landing," people were suddenly afraid to fly: "On the [Pan Am] reservations line, there was silence. In a matter of hours the airline lost half its trans-Atlantic bookings."

The airline limped along until 1991 when it declared bankruptcy and sold off its assets, some of which were purchased by Delta. There were attempts to get other Pan Am airlines off the ground, including a discount carrier that flew U.S.-Caribbean routes for a couple of years but these were related to the original in name only. Today, Pan Am lives on in EverythingPanAm, a site filled with personal histories, some great old photos and even a section offering tips on Pan Am memorabilia.

Speaking of memorabilia, maybe you'll get lucky and Anthony Toth will invite you to see his Pan Am plane. When I wrote about Mr. Toth in 2012, the avid Pan Am buff had lovingly restored a 1970s/1980s vintage 747 cabin, which he kept in his garage in California. He's been busy since then. The aircraft is now 60 feet long, 22 feet high and includes the 747's signature upper deck. Today, its home is a warehouse (no one has a garage that big).

Pacific Southwest Airlines

Better known as PSA to a generation of Californians, this popular San Diego-based airline was probably best known for the big smiles painted on each aircraft's "face" (yes, just beneath the nose). Made sense since its nickname was "The World's Friendliest Airline," but the "world" part was something of a stretch since PSA's only destinations outside the Western U.S. were Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. Fun fact: PSA's 1949 inaugural flights from Burbank to Oakland, Calif., cost $9.95.

What happened: The usual ups and downs of a changing economy (just ask any current airline exec, you'll get an earful) and the airline also had its share of scares and tragedies including a deadly 1972 hijacking rescue effort in San Francisco (among the wounded was the actor who played Hop Sing in the old "Bonanza" TV show). Ultimately, the airline agreed to merge into US Airways. Which brings us back to Allegheny, which morphed into US Airways before morphing into the "new American Airlines".

Whew. Makes tracing your own family tree seem downright simple.