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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Brand PR failures: Pan Am

Ending in tragedy

In the 1980s, Pan American World Airways, or Pan Am, was one of the most famous brands of airline on the planet. For more than 60 years it had pioneered transocean and intercontinental flying. Having begun life in 1927 with a few aircraft and a single route from Key West to Havana, Pan Am came to represent US commercial aviation policy overseas. However, in the late 1980s the company started to struggle to achieve goals and performance began to slip.

Then, in 1988, disaster struck. A Pan Am plane on route from London to New York disappeared from radar somewhere above Scotland. Later it emerged that a bomb had gone off in the cargo area, causing the aircraft to break in two. The main body of the plain carried on for 13 miles before coming to ground in the small Scottish village of Lockerbie. The total search area spanned 845 square miles and debris turned up as far as 80 miles from Lockerbie. In total, 270 people were killed, including 11 on the ground. One witness told television interviewers ‘the sky was actually raining fire.’

The horrific nature of the tragedy, the fact that everybody knew that the airline involved was Pan Am, and also the international nature of the story, meant that the Pan Am name was tarnished and could never recover. Despite the company’s constant promises of commitment to increasing its airline’s security, the public was simply not willing to fly with Pan Am anymore. After three years of flying with empty seats, in 1991 the company went bankrupt and shut down.

Lesson from Pan Am

  • Some crises are too big to recover from. Pan Am handled the Lockerbie disaster as best as it could, but the decline in public confidence proved too much.

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