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Alternate Approach: Runway lights, camera . . . action!

More than 20 years after bankruptcy, Pan American World Airways is returning to the air.

September 26, 2011  By David Carr

More than 20 years after bankruptcy, Pan American World Airways is returning to the air. This time as a steamy prime-time drama on ABC and CTV, showcasing the glamour and intrigue of stewardesses and pilots at the dawn of the jet age. CBC is also taking a chance on highflying drama with Arctic Air, a show about a maverick airline in Canada’s north that will take off in January.

Pan Am is the kind of high-profile account the fictional Sterling Cooper Agency would have chased after.


While documentary-style programs such as A&E’s Airline, BBC’s Airport and History Television’s Ice Pilots NWT have all enjoyed success on the small screen, airline drama on network television has had a rougher ride.

In 1970, NBC tried to cash in on the success of the movie Airport with San Francisco International Airport, a drama with Lloyd Bridges stepping into the Burt Lancaster role. The show was grounded after six episodes. Bridges would be better remembered as the addicted air traffic controller in Airplane, a spoof on earlier airline disaster pictures. LAX premiered in 2005, was a critical and ratings bust and had its wings clipped after 13 episodes.


Airline comedies have fared better. Wings, a show about two brothers who own a one-aircraft puddle jumper at a sleepy two airline airport in Nantucket, Mass., had an impressive eight-season run on NBC in the 1990s, although the cast and storylines could have been set at a rundown bus terminal in St. Louis, something NBC did with the John Laroquette Show. Recently, BBC ordered a second season of Come Fly with Me, a popular sendup of the Airline and Airport television franchises.

Can Pan Am and Arctic Air be successful out of the gate?

Both programs have a rich vein of story ideas to tap into. For Arctic Air it is Canada’s vast boom and bust north. Pan Am owns the rest of the world, the famous Pan Am style and a smoking soundtrack that includes hits such as Nat King Cole’s Around the World and Sinatra’s Come Fly with Me (which pictured Ol’ Blue Eyes in front of a TWA Constellation when the record was released in 1958).

ABC likes to pump up the show’s The West Wing-type street credentials, but there is more Wisteria Lane than Pennsylvania Avenue in this globetrotting romp. Certainly little is left to the imagination with the tagline: “They do it all . . . and they do it at 30,000 feet.” On these flights, expect the wait for the lavatories to be a long one.

Sony Pictures, the producers of Pan Am, have taken their cues from Mad Men the AMC drama about New York advertising executives also set in the early 1960s. Like Mad Men, the photography and dedication to detail is outstanding, including ramp scenes where jets and props mingle, and air-to-air shots of a company DC-8. Pan Am’s original jet order was split between the 707 and DC-8, with the Douglas aircraft edging out its rival. It was a short-lived victory. Pan Am switched to an all-Boeing fleet in 1969.

Pan Am is the kind of high-profile account the fictional Sterling Cooper Agency would have chased after. Mad Men typically weave real companies and classic ad campaigns into its plot lines. Perhaps licensing fees were too high. Sony purchased licence rights to the Pan Am name and logo from Pan Am Systems, a New Hampshire-based railway that bought the airline brand in 1998.

Arctic Air’s pedigree is closer to home. Omni Film, the independent Vancouver film maker producing the series is also responsible for the popular Ice Pilots NWT, which has been renewed for a third season and is broadcast in nine countries including the United States on the National Geographic Channel.

Little is known about Arctic Air other than it is set in Yellowknife and the central character is a renegade owner and pilot. Early graphics to sell the series to CBC and others hold few clues. One poster shows a pilot standing below an airborne Curtiss C-46 Commando, with a second image substituting the Curtiss for a Boeing 767. An unlikely aircraft for a north-based airline, but this is television.

Expect Buffalo Airways, the airline that delivers the thrills on Ice Pilots, its colourful president and founder “Buffalo” Joe McBryan and a dog’s breakfast of vintage pre-Second World War aircraft including the Curtiss, DC-3 and DC-4 tankers, to provide inspiration for storylines.

Can a ragtag northern airline beat out an international giant in the ratings? It is unlikely given the budget for Pan Am and the marketing power of ABC/CTV. But for aviation enthusiasts in Canada at least, a dogfight is forming on network television.

David Carr is a Wings writer and columnist.


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