Airline Startup Of The Week: Eastern Air Lines

Simple Flying readers with long memories will remember Eastern Airlines, the Miami based airline that went out of business in 1991. It’s back in business, sort of, kind of. The Eastern Airlines name has been resurrected by a startup that promises to “honor the tradition of Eastern Airlines.” 

The new Eastern Air Lines aircraft retain the look of the old version of Eastern Airlines. Photo: Getty Images.

The old Eastern Airlines was a true piece of mid 20th century Americana. You could have a few ciggies on your mid-morning flight, the crew were generous with those little bottles of Johnny Walker Black, there were a couple of hi-jackings on the way down to Cuba, and they flew L-1011s right ‘til the end … airlines just aren’t like that anymore.

Well, I can skip the hi-jackings, but I’d be open to any airline that wants to reboot the tradition of an early morning pick-me-up inflight breakfast martini.

Alas, I don’t think Eastern Air Lines 2.0 is going to quite work out like that.

Eastern Air Lines 2.0

The origins of this resurrection go back to 2011 when some investors picked up the trademarks and intellectual property of the old Eastern Airlines. By 2014, the airline was doing a few wet-lease flights and charters from Miami using Boeing 737-800s. Sadly, there were no moves to dust off those DC-10s. The emerging business was sold to Florida based Swift Air in 2017 and later passed to a subsidiary of Swift.

An old Eastern Airlines Lockheed L-1011 TriStar photographed in 1974. Photo: Piergiuliano Chesi via Wikimedia Commons.

Throughout this decade, the new Eastern Air Lines (note the Delta-ish split of Airlines into Air Lines) built its profile by flying around sports teams, transporting the body of Muhammad Ali back to Kentucky for his memorial, and operating charter flights into the Caribbean and Latin America (including back to Havana).

And while the reincarnated Eastern Air Lines has now been around for five or so years, behind the scenes there were problems as parent companies went into administration and bankruptcy protection.

Moving into regular passenger services

Eastern Air Lines currently has a handful of Boeing aircraft. It did have 10 737-800MAXs on order but these were canceled in 2018 owing to financial issues – perhaps a prescient move given the issues surrounding the MAX aircraft. Another order for 20 MRJ90 aircraft was also canceled in 2018. In addition to a few 737-800s, there are reports the airline plans to bring in some wide-body aircraft in early 2020.

As reported in World Airline News, Eastern Air Lines is moving into regular passenger transport in 2020. In January, Eastern Air Lines will begin flights two days a week between New York’s JFK and Guayaquil in Ecuador. In March, flights will start two days a week between New York’s JFK and Georgetown in Guyana. These flights will be operated by a Boeing 767-300ER.

Is this a smart idea?

The airline is targeting underserved point to point routes. On initial impressions, this may seem like a smart strategy. After all, avoiding stopovers and connections saves time and money. But aviation observers have pointed out that it is a risky strategy flying to secondary cities in Central America, noting that if there was money to be extracted from a route, incumbent carriers like American Airlines would be flying them.

Beyond Georgetown and Guayaquil, Eastern is looking further afield into Central and South America. It even has its eyes on China as it plans to bring more wide-body long haul aircraft into its fleet.

A contemporary Eastern Air Lines Boeing 737. Photo: Getty Images.

One airline analyst was quoted in as saying;

“I question the viability of the routes they have chosen. Going to secondary destinations in South America and in China is definitely a big challenge

I’m not sure this is a smart enough idea for the sake of the airline’s investors and employees. We need competition, but we need it to be smart competition”

Others say Eastern Air Lines has half a chance, staying off the key routes, and tackling the secondary destinations the big carriers are not interested in.

Eastern Air Lines faces some challenges

What is clear is that Eastern Air Lines 2.0 faces some challenges. The next 12 months will prove critical as it beds down its first regular passenger routes. Eastern, both the earlier version and this version, have faced financial challenges. Eastern 2.0 hasn’t yet conquered its financial issues which in turn, threatens its ongoing viability.

What is also clear is that right now, Eastern Air Lines may carry the same name as the former Eastern Airlines, but that’s about all they share. There is none of that mid-twentieth century Eastern Airlines tone. There is none of the breadth and depth of the former airline. Perhaps that will change over time. We’ll see….