Last Man Standing: Pan Am's Legacy and Jeff Kriendler
THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 26, 2019 -- Whatever happened to Jeff Kriendler? And who, you may ask, is Jeff Kriendler?

In case you don't know, Kriendler is one of the very few surviving senior staffers of Pan American World Airways. As its top public relations man in the 1980s, he was its public face. And he was still on board as one of the last men standing when the legendary carrier folded in December, 1991.

Launched in 1927, Pan American eventually became the "chosen instrument" of American aviation and reflected the country's growing worldwide influence. Its founder and longtime chief executive, Juan T. Trippe, was the first titan of the global skies.

"After a country's own carrier, Pan Am was always the carrier of choice," Kriendler says. "We even had a chief of protocol" to deal with the globetrotting VIPs: heads of state, prime ministers, kings and even Mother Teresa, Kriendler's personal favorite. For decades, Pan Am would ferry the rich, the famous, the infamous and the influential. At its height, Kriendler says, Pan Am flew to more than 100 countries.

Pan Am literally propelled the world into the jet age for business travel and tourism and, working with Boeing in 1970, launched the queen of the skies, the Boeing 747 super jet. "It was two-and-a-half times the size of the Boeing 707," Kriendler recalls.

Under Trippe's aloof and autocratic leadership, Pan Am championed the travel industry and was instrumental in establishing important trade groups, including IATA, the International Air Transport Association. Pan Am also founded InterContinental Hotels in 1946 and operated in as many as four dozen countries when today's major chains didn't even exist.

"Pan Am was always a big brother to the industry ... there to help it grow," Kriendler affirms.

Growing up on Manhattan's Upper West Side, where he attended private schools, Kriendler came from a family with a history in the restaurant business. In the 1920s, his father and uncle opened a speakeasy at 21 West 52nd Street. That venture morphed into the 21 Club whose worldwide reputation continues to draw guests from around the globe. Kriendler studied hospitality management at Cornell University in preparation for joining the family business.

After graduating from Cornell, Kriendler was set to follow in his father's footsteps and serve in the Marines. But when that plan was torpedoed by bad knees, he opted to join Pan Am in July, 1968, just two months after Trippe retired.

Kriendler started as a supervisor of in-flight service, working from Pan Am's global hub at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport. He later become director of in-flight service but switched to the public affairs department in 1972. Among other positions, he served as manager of public affairs and later as assistant to Bill Waltrip, then the airline's president. When Pan Am stopped flying, he was the vice president of corporate communications. At its height, Pan Am's global public relations staff in the 1970s numbered as high as 118. By the time Pan Am stopped flying, the head count had dwindled to five.

Over the years, Kriendler saw it all: changing financial fortunes, natural disasters, hijackings and, of course, deregulation in 1978. He also witnessed Pan Am's response to deregulation--the disastrous acquisition of a domestic carrier, National Airlines. And as you can see by the photo, he was the point man for the airline's response to the destruction of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, just before Christmas in 1988.

After leaving Pan Am a few months into 1992 and moving to Miami, Kriendler started his own public relations firm. Naturally, he served many travel clients: the Polish National Tourist Office; Varig, once the Brazilian flag carrier; United Airlines; and Marriott Ownership Resorts.

He also keeps Pan Am's memory alive as a director and communications chair of the Pan American Historical Foundation. The organization is "the glue that keeps the former employees together and is the impetus for trying to perpetuate the brand," Kriendler explains. More than 25 years since it ceased operation, "Pan Am is still one of the best-known airlines in the world."

Kriendler also keeps Pan Am's history and reputation alive via a number of books. In 2013, it was Pan American World Airways Aviation History Through the Words of Its People, co-authored with James Patrick Baldwin. In 2017, to honor the 90th anniversary of the carrier's launch, Kriendler and Baldwin produced Pan Am - Personal Tributes to a Global Aviation Pioneer. The coffee-table title includes more than 80 personal stories from former employees as well as industry and media figures, including yours truly. It's an ambitious and impressive work that evokes the spirit of the Pan Am family.

These days, however, Kriendler's career is the backdrop to a personal miracle. This year he received a new kidney that, after arduous and repetitive dialysis and more than a few setbacks, has revitalized him. To celebrate his new lease on life, he's working on a new book scheduled to be published later this year or early next year.

The 73-year-old Kriendler speaks with both awe of and gratitude for his good fortune after being on a transplant list for three years.

"I made it through," he says. "Not done yet because a transplant is a major thing. I want that kidney to live on in me. I am working hard to be a success for my donor."

When I E-mailed Kriendler for a medical update this week, he was characteristically blunt and humble.

"When blessed with an unknown donor's kidney in January, I did not expect the difficulties that were lurking and was grounded, forcing me to cancel attendance at a family wedding in Sweden. But there will be other trips to enjoy."