Pan Am site sustains Lockerbie memories

A recent offer by Libya to make payments for its role in the deadly bombing underscores the Internet's ability to form communities centered on the past, not just the present.

Jeff Pelline Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jeff Pelline is editor of CNET News.com. Jeff promises to buy a Toyota Prius once hybrid cars are allowed in the carpool lane with solo drivers.
Jeff Pelline
2 min read
Pan American World Airways resurfaced as front-page news on Wednesday when Libya offered billions of dollars in payments for its role in a crash that led to the demise of the historic airline more than a decade ago.

In the dot-com world, Pan Am--a name synonymous with aviation for more than half a century--continues to thrive as a popular Web site. It is a testament to the Internet's ability to form communities centered on the past, not just the present, industry observers say.

This week, the site PanAm.com was at the center of reaction to Libya's offer to pay victims of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in return for the lifting of U.S. and U.N. sanctions against the North African regime. Libya's role in the bombing led to the sanctions. Widespread publicity from the Lockerbie crash, compounded by financial turmoil, led to the shutdown of Pan Am in 1991.

Flight 103 exploded on Dec. 21, 1988, over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 259 people on the plane and 11 people on the ground.

"You can't comprehend it," one former Pan Am worker recalled of the Lockerbie bombing in a posting on the site on Wednesday. "To see something like that. I don't think I will ever forget that evening."

Although more commonly thought of as a venue for electronic commerce or as a pop-culture playground, the Internet also serves as a forum for mourning the deceased. Psychotherapists say the Net has created a symbolic connection between this world and the next.

The Pan Am Web site is sponsored by the Pan Am Historical Foundation, which marks its 10th anniversary this year. Members include former Pan Am executives and rank-and-file workers, as well as aviation buffs. The group's goal: "To preserve the history and accomplishments of Pan American World Airways, and the people who worked to make her the world's greatest airline."

Updated regularly, the site includes message boards, historical information, images and a link to books about Pan Am that can be purchased on Amazon.com--a decidedly post-Pam Am enterprise. Pan Am's image library contains hard-to-find prints, such as a collection of Norman Rockwell paintings from the 1950s that promote the airline, or sketches of the famous Pam Am "clippers" that flew around the world.

Among the "firsts" mentioned on the Pam Am timeline: first airline to offer a permanent international service, in 1927; and first airline to complete an around-the-world flight, in 1942.

Despite the dot-com downturn and demise of 1999-vintage e-commerce sites, Web sites dedicated to nostalgia are booming. In the commercial world, for example, Classmates.com is expanding rapidly. Founded seven years ago, Classmates connects friends from kindergarten through college. It is adding about 1.5 million members monthly and continues to build its paid subscriber base.

Other nostalgic sites include those dedicated to anything from movies to music to railroads, and even baseball parks.