MIAMI — Twenty six years ago, Eastern Air Lines, a carrier with roots dating back to 1927, ceased operations. Today, the brand is gracing the skies again under a new leadership and an entirely different business model. On this day, we are honored to hear the perspectives of former employees of the original Eastern Air Lines during the hours leading up to that fateful date.

At midnight on January 19, 1991, Eastern Air Lines stopped flying, making the iconic airline another casualty of the post-Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 era. The ramps and hangars at Atlanta William B. Hartsfield and Miami International airports were crowded with the company’s 190-strong fleet of Airbus A300s; Boeing 727s and 757s; Douglas DC-9s and DC-10s; and Lockheed L-1011s awaiting new owners, as the bankrupt airline sought buyers for the aircraft and other assets. The shutdown affected 18,000 employees in Atlanta, Miami, and New York.

Miami Herald Headline on January 19 announcing the demise of Eastern Air Lines. (Credits: José Santiago)
Miami Herald Headline on January 19 announcing the demise of Eastern Air Lines. (Credits: José Santiago)

Reservations staff showed up to work on January 19 to work with other airlines to rebook affected passengers or to refund them. As part of the failed reorganization process that started on March 9, 1989, $50 million had been set up to reimburse customers. Some maintenance workers also came in to work on airplanes up for sale. Furthermore, many pilots and flight attendants, who were stranded at their last destination, were rebooked on other airlines to get back to their respective home bases.

Deregulation resulted in the creation of new airlines, including low-cost carriers that had cheaper operating costs than those of Eastern. In addition, purchases of Airbus A300s in the late 1970s and Boeing 757s in the early 1980s resulted in a heavy debt. Moreover, management gambled that the fuel-efficient 757 would be a benefit, as they expected oil prices to rise in the 1980s. That did not happen, and, if anything, the oil price spike that resulted from lead up to the first Gulf War in 1991 was a major contributor to sealing Eastern’s final fate.

Without a doubt, another key factor that led to Eastern’s grounding was the contentious relationship between management and employees. Is the notorious “corporate raider/union buster” Frank Lorenzo to blame? Were union demands unrealistic? What about the employees who just wanted their company to succeed? These questions are likely to still raise a lot of passionate debate from both sides.

Our past coverage of Eastern’s history covered the events leading to the airline’s sad demise. For this commemorative article, we hope to get a more human perspective of the shutdown with recollections of January 19, 1991 from former employees and other commercial aviation professionals.

Ima Daniel Flight Attendant

“I flew in around 1:45 the day we folded. I was actually flying with my best friend, Karen, and we had had a great layover in Daytona Beach. It had been a great trip, good crew and no problems. We had the job of our dreams, it seemed Eastern had never been stronger. I said goodbye to Karen and went down to operations.”

Ima’s supervisor, Debbie had just left a conference call where she heard loans had been extended because the airline doing so well. Ima also mentioned her husband, Lynn, was also an Eastern flight attendant and on his way to the airport to check in for his flight.

Ima goes on to retell coming home that day: “What I remember most vividly is, as I put my key in the door, I could hear the kitchen phone ringing. It was directly across from the door in the kitchen. I managed to get it before they hung up thinking it was my husband. It wasn’t, but it was another flight attendant, named Alva, who said, they are turning off the screens and started crying.”

Ima responded, “That can’t be. I was just there, everything was fine. I remember feeling like the world had ended. My heart was breaking for so many reasons and told Alva my husband was headed to Baltimore and to please run to gate 32 and get him off that flight since I didn’t want him to get stuck there.”

Ima continues, “When Alva hung up, it was Karen ringing my phone. I told her what Alva said. We were in shock, in disbelief. I felt like a zombie. In the meantime Alva called me back and told me Lynn’s flight had left the gate and they had taken off on their way to Baltimore. I was crying. It was a day I will never forget. My husband and I had just lost our careers on the same day. He had 21 years, I had 17.”

Ima concludes, “We had three children, one a four-month-old, a mortgage and now no income. Life changed in an instant. We have moved on, but I will always feel the loss. My heart will always long for what could have been. I know I would have flown as long as I could.”

Mark Lowdermilk Boeing 727 Second Officer

Mark Lowdermilk was a Boeing 727 Second Officer based in Washington National Airport. He was home in West Virginia, watching the 6:00 PM news and packing his suitcase for a trip that that would start on the morning of January 19. Mark recalls the news anchor, he believes it was the late Peter Jennings, saying, “we are 23 hours into Operation Desert Storm and so far there have been no casualties, but here at home, Eastern Air Lines is closing its doors forever at midnight.”

Mark called a friend in crew scheduling to ask what was going on. His friend replied that Eastern’s CEO Marty Shugrue and other executives had been in the war room all day and that he could not talk, as he had to get airplanes moved. Mark goes on to explain that no further communications came from the company, except for a letter that came the week after, which explained the shutdown was permanent and further information concerning benefits and unemployment would follow.

Bill Sablesak Boeing 727 Captain

Bill joined Eastern in July 1981 and was a junior Boeing 727 captain based in Atlanta. Bill’s schedule for January 18, 1991 started in Palm Beach, Florida with a flight to Eastern’s Atlanta hub. From Atlanta, he would go on to Bradley Airport in Connecticut. Bill commanded a 727-225A (N814EA) during that day’s sequence, which was uneventful. He landed in Bradley at 14:00, unaware he had landed his last Eastern flight.

Bill Sablesak at the Flight Engineer Station of an Eastern Air Lines Boeing 727. (Credits: Bill Sablesak)

Bill and the crew, consisting of three pilots and four flight attendants, headed to their layover hotel in Massachusetts. They agreed to meet for dinner at 18:00. As Bill rested, he was watching CNN, which was covering the start of military operations in the first Gulf War. On the newscast, then Secretary of Transportation Samuel K. Skinner was talking about the impact of the military campaign on air travel. CNN anchor Lou Waters then asked him if he had any “thoughts or comments on the shutdown of our country’s greatest airlines, Eastern.”

Bill recounts a feeling of “SAY WHAT???” as his ears perked up as Secretary Skinner lauded Eastern and its long history. Bill at first could not believe it. He felt his 10 years at Eastern had been in perpetual crisis mode but that the company and employees always pulled through and survived. Bill called headquarters in MIA to get the sad confirmation that Eastern was ready to suspend all operations, including his inbound flight from Atlanta.

Bill and his crew, who also had watched the news, met as planned at 18:00 but in no mood to eat. As captain, Bill felt the obligation to spend the next hours with headquarters trying to figure out how to get home. They were hoping to ferry an Eastern aircraft back to Atlanta or Miami, but the airline had no such plans for them and instead booked them on a Delta Air Lines, Eastern’s chief competitor in Atlanta, flight from Bradley to Atlanta the next morning.

Other Eastern crewmembers were not as fortunate as Bill and his crew. Bill recalls, “In the hotel van the next day, the mood was somber to say the least. There were three other Eastern pilots in that same van, who had been at the same hotel, unbeknownst to me and my crew. They did not work with the company to buy them tickets home and only had plans to beg for a jumpseat on whatever airline would be kind enough to accommodate them.”

Bill and his team boarded a Delta Air Lines Boeing 767. The gracious Delta crew upgraded them to the empty seats in first class. Bill got some much needed sleep after a very frantic night on the phone. Bill recalls arriving in Atlanta on the morning of January 19 to a drizzling, overcast, dark, and dreary airport with a bone chilling 35 degrees Fahrenheit. At the arrival, he could see countless Eastern aircraft, all parked on the ramp and hangars in a “cold and dark” state, awaiting their fate.

His Delta counterpart made a very thoughtful cabin announcement, telling passengers that a great airline ceased operations the night before, and that several Eastern employees and crew members of were aboard. The Delta captain hailed Eastern Air Lines for being a worthy competitor, and several of the passengers broke into applause, which lead Bill to tears.

Bill finishes his personal story by saying that fortunately he, as well as other Eastern employees survived by finding employment elsewhere in the industry. In fact, Bill went on to fly for other carriers like Southeast Airlines, Gulfstream International Airlines, and Continental (later United) Airlines. Today, he works at NASA’s Langley Research Center. Bill has over 21,000 flying hours, including time as an instructor pilot, and ATP ratings in the Boeing 727, 737, 757, 767, 777, and Embraer 145.

William Evans Customer Service / Gate Agent

“Having had an unbelievable string of weather delays due to fog and rain, I started my shift around 15:00 on Concourse C at the Atlanta Hartsfield International Airport. My first flight was EA112 a Boeing 757 operating to Newark. As always, our flights were completely full. Just another day for us, but exciting of course. I was still at University majoring in Aviation Management so this was for me a dream job. That and of course the non-revenue travel benefits!

Just as we were about to dispatch the flight, a young female flight attendant begged me to put her on. She said we were closing doors that night. My reply to her was that we have been hearing that for so long. The media loved to dump on Eastern especially during its final days. I believe we did end up getting her on the jump seat. My next flight would be EA210 enroute to Ottawa via Baltimore on a DC-9-50. With a 17:45 departure we were working the flight but then were told it was to be canceled. After dealing with that I was assigned EA784, a 727-200 to Toronto via Buffalo at 19:55. This flight was always tricky because Toronto had a curfew and we could not be late. Again, the flight was canceled. This time we were told that because it was Canada, they were canceling because of the beginning of the Gulf War.

Well, we all know now that story! We all were running around trying our best to understand what was going on. If I remember correctly, a teletype message came over about 22:00 that MIARR was closing down. This could NOT be good! I cannot remember the last flight I was due to work that evening but the flight crews refused to fly not knowing if they would be able to get back home. The 23:00 News reported that we were closing at Midnight. They knew it before us. We all were in shock and disbelief. It was really over.

Marty Shugrue sent the death message to us that every effort was made but nothing was successful. So many tears were shed that night and the following days, weeks, months and years. Why? Because we were family. Someone not in the airline industry probably would not understand.

Shutdown letter from the last Eastern Air Lines CEO Marty Shugrue (Credits: José Santiago)
Shutdown letter from the last Eastern Air Lines CEO Marty Shugrue (Credits: José Santiago)

That was my story the night that EA failed. It would be years before I would walk the concourse again and see the ghost town. Of course now it is a bustling Concourse that bears no resemblance at all to its former glory. I will never forget that night!”

Hal Farber Gate Agent for Air Canada in Newark

Here is a perspective from Hal Farber, who was working at the gate for Air Canada in Newark, which shared the same satellite building as Eastern. Hal and his colleagues also worked ground operations for Pan Am. Hal recalls, “There were about 10 Eastern aircraft on the ground destined for ferries to Miami, and the pilots were advised they were not allowed to carry cabin crew back home as the insurance companies would not cover Liability or Workman’s Compensation benefits for the flight attendants. The pilots refused to leave their cabin crew family behind.”

Hal continues, “A 12:45 departure on Pan Am to Miami was fast approaching, and the Eastern flight crew saga had started around 07:00. By noon, about 75 backend crew and about 25 pilots were in the satellite building. I looked at the Pan Am station manager, Udo Schlemmer, and said I that I thought it was a shame that we couldn’t take them home, having 100 open seats. Udo was an old-time airline guy who believed in doing what is best and apologizing later, if need be. I could see the wheels turning in his head, and he looked at me and asked how long it would take to process them into his flight.”

Hal replied that it would take an hour to process 100 people and disappeared into the Pan Am plane waiting at the gate. When he came out, the made a public announcement on the microphone stating, “To my esteemed colleagues at Eastern, I have 100 seats leaving for Miami now, and I can hold the plane up to an hour to process you thanks to the Captain. You are my guests.”

It would take Eastern four days to ferry ten aircraft out of Newark. Hal finishes by saying, “After adding fuel, while we were processing the Eastern crews, the Pan Am 727 left with only three open seats and only 45 minutes late. It had to be the safest flight in the air.”

Dan Weiss LaGuardia Tower Operator

LaGuardia tower operator Dan Weiss recalls, “I was in the LaGuardia tower as the last Eastern 757 departed runway 31. There as a line of rampers and airport employees from the New York New Jersey Port Authority and other airlines’ workers lined up on the ramp to give a salute and wave-off to the 757. As the plane lifted off, the pilot wagged the wings in a tribute to those lined up. And in the tower, I got to say Godspeed to the Eastern family!”

Eastern is neither the first nor the last company to go through such a traumatic period. The insight of former Eastern employees, competitors, and other industry professionals about the events of January 19, 1991 without a doubt offer some much needed humanity and inspiration on what was otherwise a very sad day in airline history 26 years ago.

An Eastern Air Lines Boeing 737-800 parket at Jose Marti Airport in Havana, Cuba. (Credits: Chris Sloan)

On a bright note, the new Eastern returned to the skies in 2015 with some of the original staff. “Today Eastern’s flag from Building 16 hangs proudly in its headquarters in Eastern’s former Building 5A  and will someday soon be flown once again outside the carrier’s new maintenance and corporate headquarters at Miami International Airport.” former Eastern Air Lines CEO Ed Wegel said.

By all accounts, they are representing the Great Silver Fleet well, and carrying the fabled name into the future.