Try telling friends that you want to drive to a warehouse in Los Angeles to eat airplane food—we dare you. It might sound crazy, but if you’ve ever wanted to relive a slice of airline history, the Pan Am Experience, a sort of airline-themed dinner theater that takes place in an aircraft mock-up in the San Fernando Valley, is the perfect way to tap your inner aviation geek.
Pan American World Airways, known more commonly as Pan Am, was the United States' flag carrier and the largest international airline in the country until its demise in 1991. The airline’s service is well-remembered by frequent travelers, former employees, aviation fans—and me. And now, thanks to a sprawling aviation-themed film studio where the entertainment industry goes to shoot its airplane scenes (Air Hollywood counts among its credits TV shows including Grey's Anatomy and Modern Family, and such movies as The Wolf of Wall Street and Bridesmaids), I was about to get my chance to experience again "The World's Most Experienced Airline."
Make time for the airport lounge
The pre-flight experience is a big part of the fun, so it pays to arrive early. First, passengers check in at a retro-styled counter where they receive a vintage ticket jacket with boarding pass. Next up is a visit to the Clipper Lounge (or "business class" lounge), where fliers sip cocktails and mingle amid an impressive display of Pan Am artifacts. A fuselage mock-up of a Pan Am Boeing 747 forms the backdrop for the lounge and passenger seats arranged into conversation areas, vintage travel posters, and aircraft relics help set the scene. One of the most impressive mementos is a large route map behind the check-in desk that shows off the global network of Pan Am in its heyday.
It's a mecca for aviation aficionados. They gather around display cases filled with crockery and flatware used for elaborate premium cabin meals, topping each other with stories of favorite flights, aircraft, airports, and airlines. Others show off safety cards, old-fashioned headphones, airline-issue playing cards, and bag tags with airport codes from such far-flung locales as Cotonou, Benin (Pan Am had an impressive number of African destinations), and Rangoon (known today as Yangon, Myanmar).
The jovial atmosphere calms when a gaggle of blue and white-dressed stewardesses (yes, that was the accepted term in the 1970s) enter the lounge arm-in-arm with the flight crew.
It’s time to fly
Soon the boarding announcement for First and Clipper classes is called, and passengers make their way aboard the aircraft—an uncanny replica of the premium cabins of a Pan Am jumbo jet from the 1970s. Seat and wall coverings, tray tables, and aircraft galleys were all built to impress even the most eagle-eyed aviation fan, and the familiar 747 spiral staircase leads into the hump of its upstairs deck dining lounge.
When passengers are comfortably seated, the stewardesses flit about the cabin performing the safety demonstration and a fashion show of the airline’s various uniforms from different years. Passengers sip cocktails from vintage Pan Am glasses as they eagerly await dinner's first course, snacking on smoked almonds served in small packets with the airline’s logo (these are the kind of details that have aviation geeks practically giddy).
What you can’t see from the faux windows is the impressive catering operation taking place at the back of the sound stage, which delivers meals into the galley where they are then prepared for service. The entire experience is executed with Hollywood precision.
Caviar and shrimp cocktail are delivered from a two-tiered cart, as they would have been back in the day, and passengers watch as meals are plated in the aisle using vintage Pan Am utensils. Drinks are never left more than half empty as course after course arrives, the highlight of which is a splendid chateaubriand carved seatside. Other options include vegetarian pasta or chicken, and the meal continues with an impressive fruit, cheese, and cordial service. Dessert follows with coffee and an entertaining airline trivia game.
Air Hollywood, located in the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles, hosts the Pan Am Experience twice a month on Saturday evenings (check the site for dates); tickets are sold only in pairs and run between $490 and $690—about the same as a coach-class flight from New York to L.A.
>> Next: Pro Tips from Airline Insiders