Once Upon a Travel Time: Candlelight Supper in the Sky
SUNDAY, JULY 12, 2020 -- The oft-told narrative of the Boeing 747 does not often include tales of what was one of the most tasteful promotions ever crafted in the jet era: Candlelight suppers on the upper deck of Pan Am's specially configured widebodies.

The Queen of the Skies is in the news again more than 50 years after its maiden flight because the end is near. Although Boeing has not confirmed it, the financially stressed planemaker will shutter its 747 assembly lines. Production of passenger variants ended in 2017, but Boeing has continued to slowly crank out 747 freighters for grateful customers such as UPS. Only about a dozen remain to be built, however, and 2022 literally seems to be the end of the line for the aircraft that essentially created modern commercial aviation.

Mass-market flying--the "democracy" of affordable travel for all, if you will--is surely the Boeing 747's greatest legacy. Which is ironic because it took a double-decked behemoth like the 747 to allow Pan Am to craft a most elegant and exclusive in-flight perk. Although I flew Pan Am 747s dozens of times back in the day, I only remember being invited a few times to the upper deck. Even a first class ticket wasn't enough to guarantee you an invitation to the dinner table. There were 24 first class seats on the lower deck of the Pan Am 747s, but only 14 available dinner positions in the lounge upstairs.

I know it's hard to believe, but once upon a time flying was that luxurious. Airlines competed for and courted first class customers. They were pampered with sandwiches from famed restaurants such as New York's 21 Club and in-flight lounges offering cocktail bars and even Wurlitzer organs. Pan Am was always a cut above, however.

Dan Colussy, who ran Pan Am marketing in the 1970s, found the Boeing 747 upper deck a problematic piece of real estate. During a recent conversation, the now 88-year-old Colussy told me he "didn't think" the area was right for a "legit first class seat" and he found existing upper-deck lounges "ineffective. If you put economy [seats] up there, then first class passengers were offended with [coach flyers] walking through the space" to reach the staircase to the upper deck. "It was a problem from a marketing point of view."

The solution--a lounge that converted to a 14-seat dining room for first class flyers--was certainly something that would burnish the Pan Am brand. The airline "was known for dining. After some research, we said, 'Let's give this a try and see what happens.' "

There were challenges. The financial team needed to be convinced it was an economic use of space. Besides, Colussy remembers, "engineering doesn't like marketing guys screwing with their planes, whether seats or you name it."

Although the steep, narrow Boeing 747 spiral staircase would remain, Pan Am installed a "dumbwaiter to get food upstairs" at the back of the upper cabin. Special tables and chairs were installed, some plush banquettes, others swivel-style bucket seats. Tables were outfitted with white tablecloths and napkins and set with fine china, glassware and utensils. Four people were seated at each table as well as one set for two. There were flowers, of course, and candles to give you candlelight in the skies.

"Battery-operated candles," not real ones, Colussy hastens to explain.

And what of the food? There was no separate menu for the lucky 14 who dined restaurant-style in the bowed upper deck. The first class passengers who remained downstairs and the flyers invited upstairs ordered from the same menus.

But, oh, what menus. The star was always Pan Am's carved-at-your-seat roast beef. Lobster Thermidor was equally loved. Menus rotated seasonally with a choice of entrees, of course. Desserts such as Baked Alaska were popular. On some routes, local specialties were featured, such as a cheese plate on flights to Nice. And there was always top-notch caviar and wonderful Champagne.

"It was quite the elaborate service," Colussy says proudly.

Wine service was often controversial, Colussy recalls. "We always had good wines. In those days, the French dominated the elite selections and we had special deals with vineyards in France. We basically bought out their whole supplies."

But Pan Am strived to offer both the best of the "elite" French category and the best American wine. That didn't sit well with European guests. "Back in the 1970s, Europeans were very snobby about their wines. California wines were not considered very good. They turned up their nose at our service of California wine."

I have very fond memories of those candlelit suppers. The flight attendants always seemed to be young and attractive women. (Pan Am had a rule that stewardesses had to retire at 32.) They served graciously and appeared to enjoy their work and the prestige of staffing the first class compartment. The dinner crowd always looked refined and sophisticated. The seating was comfortable and spacious.

You could reserve a seat for dinner upstairs when you booked your first class seat. I never did. It was always a bit of a thrill to be offered the opportunity to ascend the spiral staircase for dinner after being invited by the purser or a flight attendant. It was, literally, a class by itself. It made you feel important. There was a cachet to this marketing approach that still resounds all these decades later.

And while I best remember some unique tablemates--three fresh-faced German post-grads on a backpacking trip of a lifetime--Colussy stresses that Pan Am was always the carrier of the stars.

"The thing about Pan Am in those days, on almost every flight, especially to Europe and across the Pacific, is you always had one movie star aboard or someone who could be called a celebrity," he recalls. "That was a big attraction for other first class passengers, to see a celebrity and maybe sit upstairs with them."

Sadly, the upper-deck candlelight dinner service was ephemeral. It operated for only two years in the early 1970s and was jettisoned as the oil crisis fueled Pan Am's worsening finances and stoked its long competitive decline.

Colussy, who joined Pan Am in 1970, has been more durable. He lasted a decade at America's one-time "Chosen Instrument" and ended his career as president and chief operating officer. In 1981, he became chairman, president and chief executive of Canadian Pacific Airlines. He led the company that rescued Iridium, the satellite operator. He's still active today as chairman of Gemini Capital, a venture-funding firm, and appears as personable and approachable as ever.

As for the Boeing 747, there are two more passenger versions in production along with the remaining freighters. Boeing has a contract to build a pair of specially configured 747-8 aircraft to serve as the next generation of Air Force One. The $3.9 billion aircraft are expected to be delivered in 2024.

I'm guessing whomever is President in four years will be able to arrange their own in-flight candlelight dinners. I'm available on short notice to fill out a table.

Research assistance by Marlene R. Fedin