Pan Am had been on a long downward slide since the early 70s and by 1985 it was in a right mess. It had managed to lose $762 million between 1980 and 1985, including a whopping $206.8 million in 1984 alone. Huge debt from overspending on 747s, inefficient operations, an aging fleet , the disastrous National takeover and industrial action had all contributed.
United Airlines on the other hand was on the up having recorded sizeable profits in both 1983 and 1984. It had long desired an expanded international network and was in a good position to take advantage of Pan Am's weakness.
In April 1985 Pan Am announced it would sell its entire Pacific operations to United for $750 million. At the time the sale was praised for being good for both carriers, but its hard not to see it now as being just another of many bad decisions by Pan Am. Not only were the Pacific routes one of the few profitable areas the airline had left but the sale amount seems very small considering the size of the network and the inclusion of 18 aircraft! On the flip side, despite the profits, Pan Am's share of Pacific ops had reduced from 23% in 1975 to only 14% and with National's old Eastern seaboard centric operation they were struggling to feed the West Coast based Pacific network. Still the Pacific network was about a quarter of PA's whole. It was just the first of what would become a gradual fire-sale of assets, reducing the mighty Pan Am to a shadow of its former self by the time of its final death in 1991 (I'm not counting the restart efforts).
United got a bargain including routes to New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Korea, Thailand and the Philippines. Previously it had only had two Pacific routes (Hong Kong and Tokyo from Portland and Seattle respectively). In terms of aircraft United got 11 Boeing 747s, the 6 remaining Lockheed L-1011 Tristar 500s and a single DC-10-30. The Tristars had been oddballs in Pan Am's fleet pretty much as soon as they arrived and they were an even odder addition to United who had never before operated a Lockheed product and was the launch customer for the rival DC-10. United sold them on as fast as it could though they all did get into the Saul Bass Tulip colours. In 1989 they all went to Delta, which had a massive Tristar fleet of its own.
For more info around this topic see Pan Am's Trijet Folly
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: