MIAMI — Nearly 24 years after the original Eastern shut down on January 18, 1991, the new Eastern Air Lines welcomed home its first new aircraft on December 19. Ex-Kenya Airways Boeing 737-800 “The Spirit of Captain Eddie Rickenbacker,” N276EA, arrived from Shannon, Ireland (SNN) via Portsmouth, New Hampshire (PSN) into the airline’s base at Miami International Airport at 3:13 p.m. local time on Runway 8R to a water cannon salute.
The fanfare reached far beyond that of a traditional airline launch, particularly in Miami. Miami was the original Eastern’s headquarters, and the carrier was the city’s largest employer from the mid-1970s until its 1991 shutdown. It was evident that the event and ceremony were an emotional, tear-felt occasion for the new team, and especially for the retirees and former employees of the original Eastern. Their turnout was quite moving.
The airline has 10 Boeing 737-800s on order, with purchase rights on 10 737 MAX 8s. Moreover, the company announced in July 2014 that it had placed an order for 20 Mitsubishi MRJ90s, with rights for an additional 20 of the regional jets. Eastern starts flying in March 2015 and will initially operate as a charter carrier, with scheduled operations due to begin in the next 12 to 18 months following FAA certification.
Manny Diaz, former mayor of Miami and board member of the new Eastern, served as master of ceremonies for the arrival festivities. He proclaimed “The wings of man once again fly; we are back at 36th and LeJeune. We remember Captain Eddie Rickenbacker and Colonel Frank Borman.”
The next speaker was Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. “I never thought it would be back, and we are pleased. When it ceased operations in 1991, it affected the city emotionally and financially. Eastern’s headquarters has returned to Miami after 23 years.”
Miami-Dade County Airport Director Emilio Gonzalez spoke next stating, “Our 100 airlines at Miami become 101 with the return of Eastern.” He presented Eastern President and CEO Edward Wegel with a picture depicting Eastern aircraft at Miami International Airport in 1948.
Diaz then introduced Mitsubishi President and COO Teruaki Kawai. “We look forward to seeing the Eastern MRJ WhisperJets all over the beautiful city of Miami in 2019.”
Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s vice president of marketing, has a history with Eastern that goes back to 1981, when the airline became the launch customer of the Boeing 757. At the time, Tinseth served as a flight test engineer for the aircraft. He said the 737 is the world’s most popular airliner and expressed hopes it will be the backbone of the Eastern fleet for years to come. He added he took his first flight to Miami on an Eastern Air Lines 757. He also said Eastern will be an iconic brand again and thanked the airline for being a great partner.
Tinseth handed the microphone over to General Electric’s Doug Izarra, vice president for American sales of the CFM International engines on the 737. He congratulated the leadership team and shareholders of the new Eastern and presented a crystal replica of the CFM 56-7 that powers the 737s.
According to Wegel, the crew said Eastern’s new 737 knew how to navigate itself home to Miami. He hailed the 737 as the best aircraft ever built and lauded the future MAX as the most efficient aircraft. He honored the tenure of Eddie Rickenbacker as a CEO who saw integrity and hard work as non-negotiable. He then told those involved in resurrecting Eastern, “we will not let you down. We will rebuild this airline to greatness plane by plane.”
There was a tribute to Captain Rickenbacker with a reading of his World War I Medal of Honor citation. Finally, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski blessed the plane with the words, “Lord, you walk on wings of wind. Bless this airplane and contribute to the wellbeing of those who fly in it. May your crew operate it with prudence to allow its passengers to reach their destination safely.”
Airways had a chance to speak to Wegel after the ceremony, and he provided more insight into his plans for the new Eastern. He stated the airline is currently in its next equity fundraiser. Its focus will be on Caribbean and Latin America regions first, with charters starting by the end of the first quarter of 2015.
Scheduled service will begin 12 months later, said Wegel. “For scheduled operations, we have the advantage of the Eastern brand recognition, as well as lower costs. Aircraft will have a business class, and there will be interline and code-share operations,” he said. “There is a cost advantage to a startup, and more focus on leisure travel.”
The charter service starting in March will fly to the Bahamas and Cancun. He considers charter operations to be significant business. He also added the company is overwhelmed with charter requests.
Plans for Boeing 737 seating will be 12 in business and 150 in economy, with additional plans to add state-of-the-art streaming video for the new aircraft. The initial fleet will have dropdown video for its IFE. The MRJs will have geared turbofan engines and seat up to 90 passengers, with available seat mile costs near those of the 737-700. The airlines will have five to seven used 737s by the end of 2015, and another five in 2016. The brand new Boeing airplanes arrive in April 2017 with the Mitsubishi MRJ’s in 2019.
Wegel also spoke of the tremendous name recognition for Eastern, which he said was very positive, at 80 percent, and lauded the high-energy culture of the company, as well as the tremendous support from the Miami community. When asked about his past with Eastern, he said he worked for former CEO Frank Borman.
In 10 years, Wegel envisions Eastern being the number two carrier in Miami with 30 to 40 aircraft operating to Latin America and the Caribbean. Lasty, he described the festivities as a great day and that he had been waiting 24 years to bring Eastern back to Miami.
The new Eastern’s corporate headquarters are located at Building 5A at MIA on NW 36th Street at the former Eastern Operations Center. All of the former Eastern’s system and maintenance control centers were once located at the 4-story building. The previous headquarter tower at the corner of LeJeune Rd and 36th Street was demolished back in the late 1990s, as was the original maintenance base.
Marilyn Cabrera was a flight attendant for 12 years with the original Eastern until its collapse in 1991. She said she’s coming back to the new Eastern because it flows through her veins and considers Eastern her family. She said her training starts on January 12 and described the energy with the management as phenomenal. She sees things as being easier the second time around.
Nostalgic relaunches have not been kind to airlines historically. Reincarnations of Pan Am, National, Braniff, and most recently PeopleExpress, have resulted in failure. Regardless, we are honored to have been part of this memorable event and wish the new Eastern Airlines nothing but the best as it takes to the skies!
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