Chris Sloan talks about collecting airline memorabilia, including models, timetables, silverware, brochures and more, from airlines such as TWA, Braniff, Eastern and Pan Am. Chris can be contacted via his website, Airchive.com, which is a member of our Hall of Fame.
I’ve got one of the largest private collections of airline memorabilia in the world. Many people who’ve seen it say that there’s enough to create a museum. I have everything – silverware, models, thousands of maps, timetables, and brochures. Some of the stuff is really rare and exotic and you can’t find it on eBay.
I built my website about five or six years ago. I had seen all those great collector websites and the effort people put in to share what they had and I just wanted to make a contribution. I just want to share my collection. We’re the only website that has what we have. Nobody else does virtual airport tours. Nobody else has the extensive collection of the brochures and the history in one place. Ninety-five percent of what’s on that site is mine. I call it the webseum. One day I want to have a real museum, so I figured that this would be a virtual web museum.
I’ve been collecting since 1994. I love it. It’s very expensive and time-consuming because you have to go through it all. You have to do stuff in the middle of the night. Even the site is really expensive to build and run. I update it constantly. It gets 100,000 visitors a month, so I do as much as I can, but it’s very hard. People complain when it’s not updated, and I’m just like, “Hey, man, it’s free. I’m doing this as a labor of love.”
“People really gravitate toward Pan Am memorabilia.”
We get a lot of people who are not even in the airline industry visiting the site. People whose family worked in it or who are interested in nostalgia or the graphic design. The airline industry represents the golden age of air travel: the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s. The optimism, the luxury, and this kind of “anything is possible” feel. People like looking back at this stuff from an anthropological point of view, it’s not just the airline geeks like myself. There was a lot of panache and style in the industry, and I think that’s what’s interesting about it.
There are airline photo sites (there’s a huge one called Airliners.net), and there’s a site that does timetables and a site that does safety cards, but my site is more all-encompassing and exhaustive. I want to make sure that everything is scanned really big. You can literally look closely at the detail. I wanted to have an all-encompassing airline Web museum, where you could go to the site and tour the entire history, not just the narrow little part of it.
Collectors Weekly: You focus on commercial airlines. Are there other genres of aviation collecting?
Sloan: There are military aviation collectors, but I have no interest in that. The memorabilia is harder to find because it’s government. I tried to collect from all the airlines because I wanted to be really comprehensive. The airlines that people like to see the most are Pan Am, Braniff, and Eastern. People, especially ex-employees, like seeing stuff of defunct airlines, like TWA. I’d say Pan Am is the ultimate collector’s airline because it really was the trendsetter for the first half of the history of the entire industry. People really gravitate toward Pan Am memorabilia.
Braniff Airlines had a lot of style and panache. There’s actually a website dedicated to just Braniff collectors because of the design and the aesthetic. There are even stores in Japan called Braniff boutiques that remanufacture Braniff memorabilia.
Braniff was the first airline that brought real panache to travel. They had Pucci designed uniforms, the planes were designed by Alexander Girard, and they had Alexander Calder paint the aircraft. They had a fashion show in the aisles. It was very sophisticated for the day, so people have a lot of fondness for it. It’s called the Flying Colors. Every plane would have a different color: green would be the pickle plane, and there’d be yellow and orange, but very sophisticated with leather seating.
Collectors Weekly: Do people collect from the manufacturers?
Sloan: Yes, but that stuff is hard to get. I spent $300 for an original brochure for the Boeing version of the Concorde. The plane was never built, but the brochure literally comes in a little box. When they’re trying to sell a $330 million aircraft for the single plane, they have elaborate sales merchandise. I’ve got one that was actually a leather book presented to try to sell an airplane.
Collectors Weekly: What other kinds of memorabilia do people collect?
Sloan: People collect safety cards, timetables, silverware, flatware, models, etc. I have a desk made out of an airplane wing; the very first actually, the L-1011, which was the big airliner made in Burbank. They started flying in the early 1970s. It’s still considered one of the most technologically advanced airliners that has ever been built.
Collectors Weekly: What was the earliest airline?
Sloan: There are all sorts of debates about that, but the first scheduled flight in the world was called the Benoit and it had 10 passengers. It flew across Tampa Bay, Florida. The longest lasting airline in the world that’s still flying is KLM of the Netherlands, which started flying in 1919. It’s the longest fully operating airline in the world. Memorabilia from these early airlines is hard to find. The oldest original items that I have go back to the early ‘30s.
The bulk of my collection is from the 1950s through the ‘80s. The industry cut costs over the years, so they don’t really give out stuff anymore. I also have a collection of souvenirs. KLM gives you these little liquor glasses that look like little houses, and Virgin Atlantic gives you little wind-up salt and pepper shakers with “Stolen from Virgin Atlantic” on the feet.
Airlines used to give away these amazing “Welcome Aboard” kits, even in coach. Southwest is the only airline in America that still publishes a schedule timetable on paper because it’s on the Web. It changes so often that there’s very little of the stuff left to collect.
When you’d fly on Pan Am or Braniff, they’d give you these deck cards that would have foreign language translations and all these wonderful pieces of memorabilia. Whether you’re on the plane or not, they don’t really give you much anymore, and certainly the PR departments don’t do much anymore. My collection in photographs is very current because I have all these unique pictures of the airport, but the actual physical paper and brochures and nostalgia I try to keep as current as I can.
In 2000, the Web took over, then the recession of 2001 happened, and then 9/11, so everybody just stopped. It’s interesting. You’ve got a collectible world where the collectibles don’t exist anymore. You can still go and get a brochure for Chevrolet, but Delta Airlines published its last timetable in 2004 and that was really the last one from a major airline.
Collectors Weekly: Is there still a lot out there from the earlier airlines?
Sloan: There’s always a lot. There are about 10 to 12 shows around the country. There’s one in L.A. and one in San Francisco every year. L.A. actually has two and you can buy collectibles there. Then there’s the Big Airliners International, which is once a year and you can get collectibles there.
Often people acquired airline memorabilia if they worked for the airline. When the airline went out of business, it went to the bankruptcy trustees along with the corporate memorabilia and they got it. The corporate Pan Am archives are located in Miami, and they have two warehouses full of stuff that’s in storage. When these airlines went out of business, other people tried to buy it off the trustees. It’s crazy.
Collectors Weekly: So what are some of the more obscure items you’ve come across while collecting aviation memorabilia?
Sloan: I have a model of a Concorde which is a 5 or 6 feet long cutaway. The most valued thing in our collectible world is a cutaway. It’s a model where you can actually see inside. They’re worth thousands and thousands of dollars. I’ve turned down $20,000 for this thing. It’s made out of glass and it lights up and you can actually see the seats. I’ve also got a DT10 model that’s about 5 feet long.
To my knowledge, the Concorde is the only one in the world. It was hand-built for the factory, but there are three of the DT10s. The Boeing SST brochure from the 1960s that I mentioned was never built and comes in a wood box and is incredibly rare and obscure. I have the actual lounge brochures for the 747 and the 727, which are beautiful pieces of work. I think the early 1930s airline timetables are also pretty rare, and I have the first brochure for the 707 jet airliner.
Collectors Weekly: Tell us a little bit about the model planes.
Sloan: They were commissioned by the manufacturers. You don’t see many of those anymore either, particularly cutaway models. I don’t think they build them anymore. In the old days, before they had the Internet and before credit cards were in vogue, you used to physically go to the airport or an airline ticket office and buy your ticket, and they had these amazing models made of glass. They weren’t common, but I remember seeing one when I was 7 or 8 years old and I was totally blown away by it. The airlines would build these things and give them to the travel agencies.
You did see big models by the manufacturers. The airlines didn’t really commission that many themselves. If you go to my website and you click “model collection,” you’ll see cutaways where you can see every seat and a flight attendant. A lot of people collect them around the world. They’re the Holy Grail. I bought the DT10 for $7,000 eight years ago and had it restored, and when people see this thing, it’s just “Wow.”
I think there’s still a golden age of travel if you’re flying first class on an A380 or on a big flight on some airlines. There’s the ultra high end, but barring that, the class and style just doesn’t exist like it used to. It really doesn’t. They don’t spend the money on the promotional items when they’re just trying to stay afloat.
The other thing is that there just aren’t as many airlines, there’s been so much consolidation. If you look at the history of Delta, for example, how many airlines has it swallowed up? Northwest and Western, which swallowed up Pacific Northern, which swallowed up Northeastern. If you look at Delta Airlines now, it’s made up of Northwest and Delta. Northwest is made up of Republic, which was made up of Air West, North Central, and Southern, which was made up of Bonanza and Pacific North and Air West. Then on the Delta side, Delta is made up of Western and Northeast, so 10 airlines merged into one.
Collectors Weekly: Are there aviation collectors all over the world?
Sloan: It’s pretty popular in the U.S. but it’s more popular in England, Germany, and Italy. Europe is definitely more into it than America. It’s not mainstream like collecting comic books or baseball cards;. I know very few collectors personally that live in my hometown. L.A. is probably the mecca in the U.S. because there was so much aviation manufacturing there. Two hundred people might show up at the L.A shows, and that’s a pretty good number. Airline International may have 1,000 people show up from around the country.
Part of the joy is meeting really interesting people, and it’s a journey. It’s a quest. Can you find something really rare? Believe me, there are people much more hardcore than I am. I have a big collection, but there are people that collect airplane cards and only airplane cards or swizzle sticks or silverware and their knowledge on this stuff and their collections are crazy. I’m more of a generalist because I like the whole industry. I collect because I’m interested in it.
Most collectors are a little more focused. There’s a thing called the World Airline Historical Society, and every month there’s an article on playing cards or timetables. People tend to focus on very specific types of items, like safety cards. There are huge collectors of that. There are people who like plates or signage. People who collect flight attendant uniforms, and a ton of photographers who collect photos and postcards.
Collectors Weekly: What kind of airline signage do people collect?
Sloan: When Northwest goes out of business, people go to the ticket counters and rip the signs down. If you go to my website, you can see an entire restaurant that was turned into an airline collection. It went out of business about five years ago, but I took pictures of their place. It was called the Spirit Restaurant, and it was somebody’s personal collection. These people bought a huge chunk of Eastern Airlines collectibles when it went out. They got awards, plaques, stuff from the boardroom, luggage tags, models, you name it, and they built this entire restaurant out of their collection. It’s amazing. The whole collection is for sale now actually.
There’s only one airline that really has an amazing collection of memorabilia, and that’s American Airlines. They have a museum called the C.R. Smith Museum in Dallas. Delta has a smaller one that’s not really open to the public called Delta Heritage, and they actually have airplanes. Then there’s a museum at LAX called Flight Path. There’s really only three museums that I can think of in the world that are really dedicated to commercial aviation and only one, which is Flight Path, that’s really about multiple airlines.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you keep your collection?
Sloan: All over the place. Some of it’s in storage, some at my house, and I keep some in my office. I keep the most valuable stuff in storage in a really secure and fireproof type of situation. All the brochures are kept in secure airtight containers in a vault. I had a nice chunk of my collection stolen about seven years ago, so I’m very wary about keeping it.
(All images in this article courtesy Chris Sloan of Airchive.com)