Air Hollywood invited FlyerTalk on a trip back in time aboard the unforgettable Pan Am Experience, a must-do-before-you-die for every aviation enthusiast.
It’s difficult to imagine there was ever a time when flying wasn’t a chore. For the next-generation frequent flyer – anyone who, like myself, missed out on the Golden Age of Flight – it’s downright impossible. Jaded by ever-shrinking cabins, plastic seats coated in mystery stains, and bland, cheese-saturated meals, flyers now cling to the tales about “the good old days” of travel, when simply boarding a plane guaranteed a special brand of luxury that couldn’t be found anywhere below 30,000 feet.
Luckily for flyers old and new, the Golden Age is still alive and well thanks to a few passionate individuals in Southern California. About an hour north of downtown Los Angeles, tucked away on a dead end road lined with single-story warehouses and dwarfed by power lines, sits the entertainment industry’s largest aviation-themed studio – Air Hollywood.
It’s a subtle lot at a glace, the kind of fenced-in beige someone might drive right past without second thought if they overlook the red carpet and private jet parked outside, and yet this modest exterior hides a time machine — a Pan Am 747-200.
This particular Pan Am aircraft hasn’t taken to the sky for quite some time. In fact, it’s lacking quite a few key components necessary to facilitate flight (engine, wings, etc.), not that anyone would ever think it anything less than airworthy based on the stunning, fully replicated interior. From the moment we board, we’re in an alternate reality, one where someone hit “pause” back in the late ‘60s and just walked away. One eyeful of the vibrant seats – upholstered in Pan Am’s signature Super Jet Blue and Galaxy Gold – or a beaming smile from the flight attendants that greet us at the door in the airline’s traditional uniforms, and we’re suddenly Don Draper… or Betty Draper, I guess, if that’s more your angle.
Before We Board
Let’s rewind for a moment, all the way back to the parking lot, because the Pan Am Experience begins long before we board. A red carpet welcomes the evening’s flyers into one of the unassuming buildings where countless items from Pan Am’s legacy are on display.
Posters advertising faraway destinations, rows of seats from all different classes, spotless chinaware sets compete with their own teeny-tiny salt and pepper shakers, all shapes and sizes of amenity kits, luggage tags, menus, lighters, ashtrays and so much more – all sporting the iconic Pan Am logo.
It’s incredibly overwhelming when we first walk inside, especially framed against a floor-to-ceiling backdrop of the Pan Am 747 we’re about to board!
A pair of Pan Am employees, naturally dressed in authentic attire, are stationed behind a check-in counter near the main entrance. They’re more than happy to swiftly secure our boarding passes, leaving us ample time to wander the museum and mingle with our nostalgic fellow flyers.
The flight attendants are hard at work before takeoff, too, greeting passengers and answering any questions they might have about items on display, never once breaking character.
Flight attendants aren’t the only crew members on the floor before departure. “Captain” Anthony Toth is around too, and he’s definitely worth meeting because he not only acts as the host of the evening, he also spent about 40 years fueling his early obsession with Pan Am by collecting everything on display and rebuilding the 747 we’re about to board. Toth partnered with Air Hollywood founder and chief executive Talaat Captan to share his collection with the world, and the Pan Am Experience was officially cleared for takeoff in 2014.
The In-Flight Experience
By the time boarding begins, we’ve long since forgotten everything we knew about flying these days. It’s no longer the “let’s see what it used to be and compare that to how it is now” experience one might’ve expected going into it all; it’s an experience all on its own.
Four flight attendants welcome passengers onboard and show them to their seats. We ended up sitting in the first-class lounge upstairs, an area which seemed so alien with its sofas, swivel chairs, built-in tables and wet bar. Full disclosure: the overhead bins on the ground blew my mind more than the ridiculous amounts of legroom.
Even though we were seated upstairs, I wandered the Clipper Class section downstairs before takeoff. This area was larger and, fittingly, livelier than the upstairs lounge. Configured in a 2-2-2 orientation with a short bar/magazine rack at the center, these seats put modern first-class seats to shame.
While I was exploring I found plenty of fun easter eggs — subtle things that really showed how much thought and passion went into making the Pan Am Experience, including duty-free magazines of the period, old safety booklets, and plastic-wrapped Pan Am blankets and pillows tucked away in overhead bins.
Once everyone was onboard, a voice over the intercom instructed us to take our seats in preparation for takeoff. Flight attendants delivered a hilarious pre-flight safety briefing, never missing an opportunity to make us laugh.
It only takes a few seconds for the 747 to reach cruising altitude, or at least for the packaged nuts and drink menus to appear. Naturally, when flying in the late ‘60s, one must drink a martini – shaken, not stirred – and naturally, every napkin, glass and stir-stick had the Pan Am logo on it. *Note to self: order napkins with FlyerTalk logo.
Hot towels are then handed out, followed by authentic Pan Am menus detailing the evening’s four-course meal. For the appetizer, passengers have the choice of seared prawns with cocktail sauce or heirloom tomatoes with mozzarella and pesto glaze.
Entrées follow with the choice of roasted chicken and peppercorn sauce, chateaubriand tenderloin and demi-glace sauce, or a vegetarian pasta served with fresh vegetables and roasted potatoes.
Various fruits and cheese platters sneak their way into the mix before the desert cart comes around with tarts and cake, and coffee rounds the meal out. Flight attendants plate and serve each course off a cart tableside, just as they would have back in the day.
Aviation trivia games, history lessons and three fashion shows take place between courses, seamlessly tying the four-hour flight together into a single, unforgettable experience.
Back on the Ground
The night concludes with an optional tour of the Air Hollywood studio, where in-flight scenes of motion pictures such as Airplane! and The Wolf of Wall Street, as well as hit TV shows like Lost and a number of airline commercials were filmed.
Before we take off for home, nostalgic but not jetlagged, we are treated to a brief presentation about amazing ways the team behind the Pan Am Experience showed they’re more than just enthusiasts when it comes to aviation; they’re also activists. In addition to being time machine owners and the go-to for filmmakers around the world, Air Hollywood is helping the traveling public through a variety of programs it hosts right on the studio lot, including Open Sky for Autism, FearlessFlight and K9 Flight School.
Whether you’re fed up with today’s in-flight experience or just want to spoil yourself with a first-class experience that won’t destroy your points wallet, the Pan Am Experience is the way to go. With its glamorous, white-glove style from start to finish, it embodies everything that made the Golden Age of flight so platinum.