Luxury Aloft: Keeping up the Competitive PressurePan American Airways had, during its formative and adolescent years, enjoyed the privileged position of being officially regarded as "The Chosen Instrument" of United States foreign policy. It faced no direct competition on its overseas routes from the United States, whereas the domestic airlines were denied access into foreign markets. And before World War II, competition from foreign airlines simply did not exist. But the war changed all that. Several airlines were granted foreign routes, partly as a gesture of gratitude by a government which had been well served by the industry during the conflict; and Juan Trippe suddenly found himself deprived of a near-monopoly position.
At first, in 1947, he attempted to merge with the airline which posed the biggest threat: Trans World Airlines, formerly Transcontinental and Western Air (T.W A.). But Howard Hughes had ideas of his own and rejected the proposal, and made it clear that he intended to compete with Trippe on all fronts, with the popular Constellation fleet plus a domestic route network giving him some good playing cards.
Part of Trippe's answer to the challenge was to supplement his DC-4 and Constellation fleet with Boeing 377 Stratocruisers. He had ordered a fleet of 20 on 28 November 1945, and put the first one into service on the densely-travelled San Francisco-Honolulu route on 1 April 1949. New York-Bermuda followed on 15 April, and the transatlantic route to London on 2 June as the all-first-class President Service. This was six weeks in advance of another U.S. Stratocruiser operator, American Overseas Airlines (A.O.A.).
The American Overseas MergerAmerican Overseas had been created by a shipping company, American Export Lines, which, after long and complex hearings before the Civil Aeronautics Board, had obtained a permit in 1942 to form an airline, American Export Airlines (A.E.A.) to operate across the Atlantic; and had done so with Vought Sikorsky VS-44s under contract to the Naval Air Transport Service. After the war, it had merged with American Airlines Inc. (Transatlantic Division) to become American Overseas Airlines (A.O.A.), and had actually made the first postwar commercial flight into England (to Bournemouth, as London Airport was not yet open) by any airline on 24 October 1945.
After a period of fewer than five years of unrestrained competition between three U.S. airlines on the North Atlantic, Howard Hughes and T.W.A. had to endure the indignity of seeing the other two, Pan Am and American Overseas, amalgamate; or, to be exact, to observe Pan Am purchase A.O.A. on 25 September 1950 for $17,450,000. The merger strengthened Pan Am's position immeasurably, not least in its now augmented Stratocruiser fleet, which shared with the British B.O.A.C., which also had them, the honors of providing the most comfortable service across the Atlantic, not least because the passengers had a chance to stretch their legs and take a trip to the bar.
Boeing 377 Stratocruiser: Boeing Tries AgainThe engineers and designers at Seattle were entitled to feel a little unlucky in their attempts to enter the commercial airliner market. The Model 247 of 1933 was judged to start the new era of "The Modern Airliner" but complete success was foiled by a corporate error in marketing the product. The Model 307 Stratoliner was the world's first pressurized airliner, but World War II intervened and Boeing had to concentrate on wartime bomber production. The Model 314 was regarded as the world's finest flying boat ever built, but once again World War II prevented full production, partly because the onset of long range landplanes effectively destroyed the flying boat market.
Now Boeing tried again. To support the B-29 and B-50 Superfortress bombers that it had built for the U.S. Army Air Forces, it produced almost 900 military tanker transports. Off the same production line came 55 of a commercial version, the Model 377, better known as the Stratocruiser. It looked as ponderous as the Constellation looked graceful. It seemed to bore its way through the air, defying apparent theories of clean aerodynamics. It was, in fact, as fast as the Constellation, and set up many point to point records.
The feature for which it is best remembered is the lower deck lounge, fitted out as a cocktail bar, a welcome diversion during the long transatlantic flights.
Boeing 377 Stratocruiser cocktail lounge.
Largely because of the bar, the Stratocruiser was invariably used by the airlines for luxury or first class service. Thus, although the "Strat" had slightly higher operating costs than the Constellations or the DC-6Bs, it consistently pulled in higher revenues, usually more than restoring the economic balance.
While the Constellation is remembered with affection as the epitome of elegance of the piston-engined era, and the DC-6B for its reliability and efficiency, the Stratocruiser was the last to be retired from the world's prestige routes when, first the turboprop Britannia, and then the Comet and the Boeing 707 jets ushered in a new era that became the Jet Age.