Long-Dead Pan Am Comes Back ... Again

If you've spied Pan Am's familiar blue globe on a big white jet at Hartsfield-Jackson airport, you're not seeing a ghost --- at least not exactly.

Those Boeing 727s belong to Pan Am Clipper Connection, which recently launched three round-trips a week between Atlanta and Tunica, Miss., a casino town near Memphis.

The Portsmouth, N.H.-based airline is a distant echo of the famous globe-trotting airline that was started nearly 80 years ago by Juan Trippe, the cunning entrepreneur who figured prominently as Howard Hughes' archrival in the movie, "The Aviator."

Pan American World Airways went out of business in 1991, and many of its employees moved to Delta Air Lines after the Atlanta carrier bought Pan Am's European network. The name was later revived by a former executive, but that version went bankrupt in 1998.

The name was pulled out of bankruptcy by Guilford Transportation Industries, a railroad company majority-owned by Timothy Mellon, an heir to the Mellon family banking fortune. Mellon and the carrier's other owner, President Dave Fink, still saw value in the golden name.

"Pan Am, as you know, has name recognition," said Stacy Beck, a spokeswoman for the owners.

Today, the unusual airline operates with a split personality. Pan Am operates as a commuter carrier making weekday hops on turbo-prop aircraft between the Boston area and Trenton, N.J.

In the South, Pan Am flies as a vacation and charter carrier. From a hub in Orlando, three 727s make scheduled flights to Puerto Rico, Atlanta and Tunica, and it operates charters to other resort destinations.

The new Pan Am carries some baggage.

The airline has posted big losses. Four of its seven 727s have been parked since federal regulators last year began a probe of the company's financial condition, and a former executive admitted filing fraudulent financial reports to the U.S. Department of Transportation.

When jet fuel prices soared last fall, Pan Am temporarily shut down its big-jet operation entirely, though it kept the smaller commuter planes flying.

Last year, the airline lost almost $19 million on revenue of $19.5 million, according to an audit report filed with the DOT. The carrier ended the year with $25 million in liabilities and less than $7.6 million in assets, but also received $16.2 million in "dividends" from Guilford Transportation Industries.

Beck said high fuel prices continue to hurt the carrier but that it has been able to weather the challenge better than some airlines.

"We do have the ability to park our aircraft ... because we don't have huge lease payments," said Beck.

She declined to comment on the federal investigation but said the airline hopes to grow if the DOT allows it to fly four additional jets after the probe is done.

DOT spokesman Bill Mosley said the agency's review of the airline is "ongoing," and that the DOT's inspector general is also conducting an inquiry.

Pan Am's route between Tunica and Atlanta came about almost by accident.

Beck said the airline originally planned flights between Orlando and another gaming resort, Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss.

"In the middle of us looking at that, Hurricane Katrina hit Mississippi," she said, shutting down casinos and the Gulfport-Biloxi airport.

A Pan Am employee suggested Tunica, which had recently opened a new airport.

The city's casino operators were eager to bring in regular direct flights from Atlanta and agreed to buy seats on Pan Am's aircraft to subsidize the service and reduce the carrier's risk.

It has turned out to be "a nice alternative," said Beck.

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