United Airlines celebrates 30 since taking over Pan Am's Asia routes

United Airlines hardly flew at to Asia before February 1986. Photo: United Airlines. 

United Airlines hardly flew at to Asia before February 1986. Photo: United Airlines. 

United Airlines has more flights across the Pacific than any other airline. But did you know that as recently as 30 years ago, it had almost no Asia routes?

Today, with the major exception of China, U.S. airlines can fly just about anywhere they want in Asia with limited or no government interference. But in the 1980s, access was much more tightly controlled, and United had to buy its way in. 

"In 1985, we purchased Pan American World Airways' Pacific Division for more than $700 million, enabling us to begin service 30 years ago this week to more than a dozen Pacific cities, nearly all of which we continue to serve today," United told employees earlier this month. 

United is looking back now because while it completed the Pan Am deal in 1985, it did not take over the Pan Am routes until February 1986 - 30 years ago. The new destinations included:

  • KIX (Osaka)
  • ICN (Seoul)
  • PEK (Beijing)
  • PVG (Shanghai)
  • TPE (Taipei)
  • MNL (Manila)
  • SIN (Singapore)
  • SYD (Sydney)
  • MEL (Melbourne)
  • AKL (Auckland)

It was an immediate changeover, according to a Jan. 26, 1986 Chicago Tribune story. One day, the flights were operated by Pan Am, and the next by United. 

All Pan Am passenger bookings in the Pacific as of Feb. 11 will be transferred to United, Moonjian said. Customers and travel agents will be notified of the change. United, also buying some of Pan Am`s wide-body jets, said it would repaint the airliners with United`s logo within three days after taking over the routes.

Before February 1986, United had only two routes to Asia, Seattle-Hong Kong and Seattle-Tokyo, according to another 1986 Chicago Tribune story. "With the Pan Am purchase, United expands its Pacific schedule to 74 weekly flights," The Tribune reported. 

It was not just the Pan Am routes that United bought. United also took 17 of Pan Am's planes and hired about 2,700 of its workers, the Tribune said. 

The Tribune said Pan Am made the deal with United so it could focus on Europe, South America and the Middle East. Pan Am needed the cash, but the airline still folded five years later. 

Perhaps the story would have been different if Pan Am had held onto its Asia franchise?