Monday, October 26, 2009

In One Man's Garage, Pan Am Still Makes the Going Great

Fliers nostalgic for the golden era of air travel might want to book a trip to Anthony Toth's garage.

Mr. Toth has built a precise replica of a first-class cabin from a Pan Am World Airways 747 in the garage of his two-bedroom condo in Redondo Beach, Calif. The setup includes almost everything fliers in the late 1970s and 1980s would have found onboard: pairs of red-and-blue reclining seats, original overhead luggage bins and a curved, red-carpeted staircase.

Brian L. Frank for The Wall Street Journal

A coffee maker with a Pan Am logo sits in the replica cabin Anthony Toth built in his Redondo Beach, Calif., home

Once comfortably ensconced, Mr. Toth's visitors can sip beverages from the long-defunct airline's glasses, served with Pan Am logo swizzle sticks and napkins, plus salted almonds sealed in Pan Am wrappers. They can even peel open a set of plastic-wrapped, vintage Pan Am headphones and listen to original in-flight audio recordings from the era, piped in through the armrests.

Mr. Toth, a 42-year-old global sales director at United Airlines, has spent more than 20 years on his elaborate recreation of a Pan Am cabin, which includes a few economy-class seats, too. All told, Mr. Toth estimates he has spent as much as $50,000 on the project, which he hopes someday to turn into a museum.

"The brand was so powerful, he says. "They had this uncompromising standard of service."

[PanAm Bag]

To find artifacts from the airline, which ceased operation in 1991, Mr. Toth spends his vacations trekking out to an area in the Mojave Desert known as the airplane boneyard, where retired aircraft are stripped for parts. When he can't buy an original Pan Am item in good condition, like seat covers, he recruits professionals to create suitable stand-ins.

Julie Fisher, a friend of Mr. Toth's, says one time she got a call from Mr. Toth saying he'd heard about a source for headsets in Bangkok. A few days later, the two of them hopped a plane to Thailand for the weekend to track them down. (As an airline employee, Mr. Toth can usually fly himself and a friend for free if space is available.)

In the 1930s, Pan Am became the first U.S. airline to fly internationally, and in the 1970s, the first to fly Boeing 747 jumbo jets. Pan Am was once synonymous with international jet-setting, with upper-deck dining rooms and flight attendants decked out in crisp blue uniforms, high heels and white gloves. First-class travelers were served out of silver-plated martini pitchers. A parade of linen-covered food carts made its way down the aisle at dinnertime.

The airline began struggling financially in the 1970s as fuel prices soared and competition on international routes escalated. Still, Pan Am made few cutbacks to its first-class service.

In 1988, a Pan Am flight was bombed by terrorists above Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people. The airline declared bankruptcy in 1991. A commuter airline called Pan Am Clipper Connection operated out of New Hampshire using the company's blue globe logo until last year. United Airlines, Mr. Toth's current employer, purchased the Pacific division of Pan Am in 1985.

Hopping On Board Pan Am


Anthony Toth has been working on his replica of a first-class Pan Am cabin for 20 years. Candace Jackson tours Toth's homage to the golden era of air travel.

M. Kelly Cusack, a fellow Pan Am enthusiast and memorabilia collector who worked for the airline from 1980 to 1991, runs a Web site that chronicles the airline's history. He met Mr. Toth several years ago while working at United and says he doesn't know of many other collectors who've gone as far in reconstructing an actual airplane cabin in their home.

Mr. Toth's obsession with Pan Am began in the 1970s when he was growing up in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, about 45 minutes from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. Every summer, he and his family traveled to see relatives in Rome and Budapest, where his parents were from, usually flying in Pan Am's coach class. "There was no other aircraft I could walk on board that intrigued me more than the Pan Am cabin," he says. "Everything symbolized something. That meant something to me as a youngster."

As a child, Mr. Toth would save items that most passengers considered to be trash, such as cardboard coasters and paper tray linings from coach meal services. On every flight, he would carry a camera and shoot three or four rolls of film documenting the aircraft's interior. He lugged a boxy tape recorder to capture in-flight audio by cranking the dial on his armrest up to level 12 and placing the microphone to the earphones so he could listen to the airline's music selection back home.

For his 10th birthday, Mr. Toth says he persuaded his parents to sign him up for an annual subscription to the Official Airline Guide, which lists flight timetables and is typically used by travel agents. When he was 12, he created a 20-foot mock-up of the interior of a Pan Am first-class cabin in his family's basement, making seats out of wood. "This consumed my world," he says.

Since his 20s, Mr. Toth has worked for United in a variety of positions and places, including Chicago, Raleigh, N.C., and San Francisco. He created early versions of his airline cabin in the living rooms of various apartments and houses he rented when he was in his 20s and 30s.

Brian L. Frank for The Wall Street Journal

Anthony Toth built a replica Pan Am first-class cabin in his garage.

Two years ago, Mr. Toth, who is single, purchased his first home. He says he looked at nearly 50 apartments before finding one with a slightly oversize garage that would have enough space for his cabin configuration.

There's one modern update: Mr. Toth installed a flat-panel TV instead of the old projection version that would have been used in the 1980s so he could watch movies and TV using his Pan Am headphones. Airline buffs will notice that the walls actually are from a DC-10 aircraft, not a 747, though he hopes to change that soon.

While the cabin isn't open to the public, friends and fellow airline enthusiasts frequently hang out there, he says. Beverage service is included in a visit, as is a custom souvenir boarding pass and first-class luggage tags that look identical to Pan Am's from the early 1980s. Occasionally, he'll prepare a meal in the galley, though usually he orders takeout and serves it on his vintage Pan Am china and serving trays. Mr. Toth has even hosted his United colleagues for corporate meetings.

"His passion for the industry goes well beyond what [he has] at home," says Mr. Toth's boss, Jeff Foland, senior vice president of world-wide sales and distribution for United.

Today's first-class cabins, with reclining, lie-flat seats, on-demand gourmet meals and individual televisions have advanced far beyond the lower-tech cabins of the 1970s and 1980s. But today's airline service and branding just aren't the same, says Mr. Toth.

In the good old days, "I didn't want to sleep when I flew," he says. "I wanted to spend every minute enjoying everything that was happening."