The Life and Death of the SS United States, Part Two

This is a continuation of my previous post on the SS United States.

I only became the aware of the irony in the United States‘s lackluster commercial career last week, reading Jennifer Van Vleck’s book Empire of the Air: Aviation and the American Ascendancy. Van Vleck’s book is history of the policy and imagery that made America’s international airlines, first and foremost Pan American Airways, into an instrument of American influence. Running from the creation of Pan Am in the late 1920s, through its role in FDR’s Latin American Good Neighbor policy and its quasi-military operations during the early years of the Second World War, to its dominance of early postwar commercial aviation, Van Vleck’s book nails the heady mix of ideas, technology, and financial heft involved in the spread of America’s airlines.

One of the topics Van Vleck covers in Empire of the Air is the postwar encouragement of tourist travel by air, something which showed how the US government was simultaneously funding the SS United States and supporting the agent of its destruction.

Postwar, the government supported air travel abroad as an instrument of American diplomacy and influence. In addition to improving transatlantic relations, American tourism was expected to pump as much as $2.5 billion a year into foreign economies as a complement to direct foreign aid through projects like the Marshall Plan. In 1948, the Economic Cooperation Administration (ECA), which ran the Marshall Plan, opened up a Travel Development Section. Its mission included encouraging Americans to go to Europe aboard US airlines such as Pan Am, American Overseas Airlines, and TWA.

The ECA’s Travel Development Section had a lot of work to do. In 1949–50, only 25–30 per cent of American travellers to Europe went by air. The rest travelled by sea, aboard liners like the United States. But that began to change when Pan Am and the other American airlines began offering “tourist-class” fares that were only two-thirds or half the price of a regular ticket. Transatlantic airline fares were controlled by an international cartel that was wary of cutting rates, the International Air Transport Association, but Pam Am was strongly supported on the rate change by both the US Commerce Department and the Travel Development Section.

The first New York to Paris flight with tourist-class passengers took off on May 1, 1952, only a year after the United States was launched. Two years later, airplane passengers surpassed ship passengers for the first time in American history. Both the Truman and the Eisenhower administrations promoted American tourism abroad as ways of balancing the US trade surplus and pumping dollars into allied economies. At the same time, commercial aviation became an important part of American military planning for war. In 1952, the creation of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet put American airlines in the hands of the government in case of a crisis. Military projects and foreign assistance contracts like Pan Am’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) pumped money into both airlines and airplane manufacturers.

This was the environment that the United States was sailing into when the United States Line began to operate it. Troopships were vital to reinforcing Europe, but aircraft were playing more and more of a role in moving troops across the Atlantic. The decline in civilian and military travelers put the United States out of business, slowly but surely.

Although the airlines had put most liners out of business (to recover only as cruise liners – which is a quite different story). Still, even as instruments of the policy, the airlines were vulnerable to swings in policy. The foreign airlines the US government supported through Pan Am’s TAP would eventually cut into American market share.

More worryingly, by the early 1960s a US trade deficit meant the government wanted American tourists to stay home. Eisenhower declared 1960 to be “Visit U.S.A. Year,” and Kennedy created the US Travel Service to encourage foreign and domestic visitors. By 1968, the “travel deficit” alone was more than $2 billion. Less than a decade after the United States was laid up, deregulation of the industry in 1978 put “chosen instruments” like Pan Am at the mercy of a far more complex, unpredictable economic environment. While they were still solvent when the United States was surplussed and sold in 1980, Pan Am went bankrupt in 1991 and TWA in 1992.

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