Key West Historic Places: Birthplace of Pan Am

There are a multitude of things to do in Key West and its aviation history provides additional opportunities. This city once played a pivotal role, not only in the United States aviation industry, but on a worldwide scale as well. Pan American Airlines originated on the island of Key West and for awhile, flourished with its consistent innovations that greatly influenced the business of airlines.

Though conceived in 1927 as a combination of air mail delivery and passenger service, Pan American Airlines actually started in 1920 with Aeromarine Airways as air mail service only between Key West, Florida and Havana, Cuba. Employing U.S. Navy purchased "flying boats", delivery of mail from Key West to Havana took only an hour or so. Passenger service was then added and the identical fee applied regardless of whether the cargo was human or mail.

In 1925 the Air Mail Act was passed, allowing government contracts of mail delivery to be awarded to smaller carriers. It was then, in 1927, that Juan Trippe acquired such a contract and the Pan American Airline was created. Its "flying boats" enjoyed an almost exclusive monopoly over international travel routes for years due to this awarded government contract.

Though passenger service stalled during WWII, Pan Am continued operations by transporting United States soldiers into areas necessary to the war effort. This proved to the advantage of the airline when conflict ceased and new trade routes had then been established throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. In total, more than ninety million miles were flown by Pan Am during this period.

After the war, tourism gained in popularity and Pan Am boosted its income with the addition of more modern aircraft. Passenger jet service was created and immediately profitable due to its reduced flying time. Airline passengers enjoyed the added comfort of their surroundings and competing airlines fought to keep up with the trail Pan Am had blazed.

In the 1980's, Pan Am's fortune began to take a negative turn. Once praised for its government monopoly, the airline instead began to be criticized and international routes started to be awarded to rival companies. An accumulation of debt and a liquidation of assets followed and by 1991, bankruptcy was declared by the former airline giant.

A few reminders still exist of the Pan Am glory days. The structure that was once home to the airline's ticket office and before that, the headquarters of Aeromarine, is located at the intersection of Whitehead and Caroline Street. Kelly's Caribbean Bar, Grill and Brewery houses this piece of history adorned with relevant memorabilia and is also famous as being co-founded by "Top Gun" actress Kelly McGillis, a one time Key West resident.

Key West aviation memorabilia can also be enjoyed at the Conch Flyer Bar at the Key West airport and at the Cuban restaurant, El Meson de Pepe, located on Mallory Square. There are many things to do in Key West and the exploration of its aviation history is a wonderful addition to any visit.