DALLAS – Today in Aviation, US carrier Eastern Air Lines (EA), better known as Eastern, ended operations in 1991 after 65 years of operations. For the better part of the 20th century, as one of the “Big Four” US airlines, EA dominated important routes in the country. It was headquartered at Miami International Airport (MIA) in Miami-Dade County, Florida.
Eastern pioneered hourly air shuttle service between New York City, Washington, DC, and Boston as the Eastern Air Lines Shuttle in 1961. It took over Braniff’s South American route network when the latter was shut down in 1982. EA also served London Gatwick (LGW) thru its McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 “Golden Wings” service in 1985.
WWI Pilot Eddie Rickenbacker was at the helm of the carrier in its early days, just after EA had become one of the four household airlines formed at The Spoils Conference that divided the mail routes in 1926. From the 1930s until the 1950s, EA had a near-monopoly in air travel between New York and Florida, dominating the US commercial aviation industry for decades.
A Big Start
Eastern Air Lines was composed of a number of air travel companies, including Florida Airways and Pitcairn Aviation. In the late 1920s, the latter won a contract to fly mail between New York City and Atlanta, Georgia, on single-engine mail aircraft.
Clement Keys, owner of North American Aviation, bought Pitcairn in 1929. A year later, Keys changed the name of the company to Eastern Air Transport. After being purchased by General Motors and undergoing a change of leadership following the 1934 Airmail Act, the airline became known as Eastern Air Lines.
In 1938, WWI flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker bought EA from General Motors. The complex deal was concluded when Rickenbacker handed a certified check to Alfred P. Sloan for US$3.5m (equivalent to US$64m).
By March 1939, Eastern had 15 weekly departures from Newark (six to Washington, five to Miami, and one each to Richmond, Atlanta, Houston, and San Antonio), two from Chicago to Miami, one from Tampa to Atlanta, and one from Tallahassee to Memphis. With these scheduled operations, the airline was now the fourth-largest airline in the country by passenger miles (103 million).
Change at the Top
Rickenbacker saw the airline go through a period of growth and innovation; as EA was the most profitable airline in the post-war era, it never needed government subsidies. However, at the end of the 1950s, EA was eroded by state subsidies to rival airlines and the arrival of the jet age.
On October 1, 1959, Rickenbacker’s lack of foresight toward the jet age was conducive to his replacement as CEO by Malcolm A. MacIntyre, a talented lawyer who, in turn, lacked experience in airline operations.
In December 1963, a new management team headed by Floyd D. Hall was set up and Rickenbacker left his position as Director and Chairman of the Board. He was 73.
The Jet Age at Eastern
East Air Lines opened its Chester L. Churchill-designed Terminal 1 at New York City’s Idlewild International Airport (later renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport [JFK]) in November 1959. The next year, the first Douglas DC-8-21 jets began to take over longer EA flights, such as those non-stops from Chicago and New York to Miami.
Soon after, EA’s DC-8s were joined by the Boeing 720 in 1962 and the Boeing 727-100 in 1964, which the airline (along with American Airlines [AA] and United Airlines [UA]) helped Boeing develop.
On February 1, 1964, Eastern became the first airline to fly the 727. As “Captain Eddie” Rickenbacker retired, a new image was adopted, including the now-famous hockey stick design, with the official colors of Caribbean Blue over Ionosphe Blue. EA was also the first US carrier to fly the Airbus A300 and was the launch customer for the Boeing 757 aircraft.
Eastern started flying internationally with the opening of routes to markets such as Santo Domingo and Nassau, Bahamas. Services from San Juan, Puerto Rico, expanding service to Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (SJU). In 1967, EA purchased Mackey Airlines, a small airline primarily operating in Florida and the Bahamas, as part of this expansion.
Around this time, the airline also bought the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar and Airbus A300 wide-body jets; the former would be known in the Caribbean as ‘El Grandote’ (the huge one).
As a side note, just before Walt Disney World opened its doors in 1971, EA became its “official airline” and remained so until its contract route network forced Disney to move to Delta Air Lines (DL) shortly before EA’s default in 1989.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, labor disputes and high debt burdens strained the company under the leadership of former astronaut Frank Borman. Frank Lorenzo acquired EA in 1985 and transferred many of its assets to his other airlines, including Continental Airlines (CO) and Texas Air.
After continuing labor disputes and a crippling strike in 1989, Eastern ran out of money and was liquidated in 1991. Its last slogan would be: ‘The second largest airline in the free world’.
American Airlines acquired a number of EA routes, specifically those from Miami to Latin America and the Caribbean, while DL, EA’s main competitor at Hartsfield Airport (ATL) in Atlanta, acquired a number of EA Lockheed L-1011 aircraft. For its part, USAir acquired 11 of Eastern’s 25 Boeing 757-225 aircraft.
Although EA announced on its timetable of March 2, 1986, that it would serve Madrid, Spain, effective May 1, 1986, the service did not begin. The only scheduled Eastern trans-Atlantic service to be provided was Miami to LGW, which began on July 15, 1985, and was discontinued in 1986, replaced by code-share flights from Atlanta via British Caledonian Airways (BR).
A New Eastern on the Horizon
In 2011, a group acquired EA’s intellectual property, including trademarks, and formed the Eastern Air Lines Group. The group announced at the beginning of 2014 that it had filed an application with the US Department of Transportation for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, which would be followed by certification with the FAA.
The new airline began service with charter and wet-lease flights from MIA at the end of 2014 with Boeing 737-800 jetliners painted in the classic Eastern “hockey stick” livery. The IATA and ICAO codes of the original airline, as well as its call sign, are now being used by the new Eastern Air Lines route.
After its sale to SwiftAir (WT), the trademarks were handed over to Eastern Airlines, LLC in 2018. Before the pandemic and after nearly two decades of being officially defunct, on January 12, 2020, just before the COVID-19 lockdowns halted commercial aviation, the first flight of the renovated EA landed at New York’s JFK airport, marking a new era for the airline.
Featured image: Boeing 747-121 N735PA at MIA in 71. Eastern had leased the Queen of the Sky from Pan American World Airways before the L-1011 arrived. Photo: By RuthAS – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=40796772. Article sources: Reconsidering a Century of Flight, World Airline News, World Airline Directory, and Eastern Air Lines Group.