At the most basic level, Pan Am is a paean to the airline industry before deregulation. With government-controlled routes that excluded competition, Pan Am dominated international travel. As a result, it charged high fares and provided services that one would never see today, at least on domestic routes. Passengers were treated to a number of benefits, such as spacious seating and food service that you would only find in first class today. Several films have portrayed this in a limited way. Think of Indiana Jones flying Pan Am in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Leonardo DiCaprio posing as a pilot and recruiting stewardesses in Catch Me If You Can.
Taking place in 1963, the show portrays the stewardesses’ lives as emblematic of the coming feminist movement, which was only in the early stages at the time. One woman sees her job as a way to assert her independence; her sister joins Pan Am after fleeing her wedding in Graduate-style fashion to avoid a life of 1950s domesticity. Christina Ricci plays a stewardess who lives as a bohemian in Greenwich Village.
Though Pan Am largely romanticizes their lives, the show does depict some of the downsides of working as a stewardess in that time. The airline routinely checked your weight and you had to quit when you got married. Indeed, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, air stewardesses were one of the first groups to challenge gender discrimination under Title VII of the landmark law.
With the passage of airline deregulation during the Carter Administration in the late 1970s, new competitors emerged which undercut the domination of Pan Am, TWA, Eastern, and other older carriers. The growth of discount airliners made flying accessible to many more people, but at the cost of the services that made air travel luxurious. When was the last time someone offered you a meal on a domestic flight, let alone playing cards? In the aftermath of the Libyan-sponsored bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, the airline was forced to declare bankruptcy. Eastern and TWA suffered the same fate in the 80s and 90s. If one were to make a 21st century version of Pan Am, it would be called Southwest. It doesn’t sound nearly as romantic, though it is certainly more affordable.