Aeroflot and Pan Am

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Subject essay: Steven E. Harris

Finalized after many years of top-level negotiations, the launch of a direct New York-Moscow air route in 1968 signaled an early turn toward détente in the Cold War struggle. Aeroflot, the Soviet Union’s only airline, and Pan Am, the storied American carrier that had long served US government interests, were the designated carriers for this exclusive venture in peaceful coexistence. To be sure, the two airlines had been Cold War rivals since the 1950s competing for routes and influence in developing countries of the newly de-colonized world, but starting in 1968 they were transformed into business partners.

Like the hotline that the US and USSR created after the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the Moscow-New York route symbolized a desire for direct contact to ease tensions. But unlike the hotline that was designed to avert crises and little else, the air route encouraged a normalization of relations, which was the essence of détente. In the case of Aeroflot and Pan Am, such normalization took place not only at the diplomatic level, where the air route was negotiated, but was enacted by Soviet and American citizens who flew over the Iron Curtain as tourists, businessmen, and members of cultural and educational exchanges. In short, the airlines’ joint partnership broadened the number and variety of actors who played a role in advancing détente.

Like any business partnership, Aeroflot and Pan Am had their rocky moments. Their competition for global influence in the Cold War remained a critical part of their joint history. And their direct flights between the US and USSR were temporarily suspended in the early 1980s when the countries entered a renewed Cold War chill after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Reagan administration’s aggressive military build up. But the two airlines also competed in the soft power realms of mass consumption, mobility, modernist design, and popular culture. Each airline touted its ability to extend jet travel to the masses eager for convenience, comfort, and an upwardly mobile way of life. Both airlines sought to meet and shape the tastes of an international flying public with ever increasing consumer expectations. And each airline’s respective terminals in New York and Moscow-built in the heyday of sleek modernist design-further promoted the modern lifestyle Aeroflot and Pan Am promised their passengers.

Pan Am and Aeroflot’s competitive partnership ended when the Soviet empire collapsed in December 1991, but not as might have been expected. That same month, the Pan Am empire also collapsed, after years of being unable to adapt to a rapidly changing airline industry that underwent deregulation. In contrast, Aeroflot re-emerged from the Soviet Union’s demise and the end of the Cold War as a decidedly leaner and commercially driven airline that competes today for passengers both domestically and on the world stage.

Countering the image of “collapse,” Aeroflot’s reincarnation suggests that certain Soviet institutions were able to reinvent themselves for the post-Soviet order. For its part, Pan Am now occupies a hallowed place in popular American memory for the romantic age of mid-century jet travel when seats were wider, service was better, and benevolent airlines looked after the country’s interests and not just the bottom line. Like Aeroflot’s Soviet afterlife, Pan Am’s story counters the grand narrative of American triumphalism at the end of the Cold War.

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