30 Years Ago Today: Eastern Air Lines Ceases Operations

30 years have passed since Eastern Air Lines ceased operations. The legacy carrier stopped flying in January 1991 after being in business for over six decades since its founding in April 1926.

Eastern AIr Lines A300
Eastern Air Lines flew several different aircraft types over the years, including the Airbus A300, Boeing 727, Boeing 747, Boeing 757, Douglas DC-8, Douglas DC-9, and Douglas DC-10. Photo: Eduard Marmet via Wikimedia Commons

A rich history

Before stopping services, Eastern Air Lines was headquartered at Miami International Airport and had a strong presence all across the United States. Hubs included Atlanta, Charlotte, Kansas City, New York JFK, New York LaGuardia, Philadelphia, San Juan, and Washington National.

The carrier traced its routes back to when it performed flights as Pitcairn Aviation in the late 1920s. Early business was concentrated on mail operations. It was soon bought in 1929 by Clement Keys, the owner of North American Aviation, and the name was then changed to Eastern Air Transport. However, the 1934 Airmail Act caused a shift in the US aviation industry, and Eastern subsequently split off from North American Aviation to become Eastern Air Lines.

World War I veteran Eddie Rickenbacker steered the airline into a force to be reckoned with. He took on a fleet of two Fokker F-X and three Ford planes to help his carrier rise through the ranks. Moreover, Curtiss Condors and Kingbirds were soon added to help the company’s network to expand.

Notably, under Rickenbacker’s leadership, Eastern grew from an airline flying a few thousand miles per week into a major carrier. Through the years, he acquired modern, larger, and faster aircraft, such as the Lockheed Constellation and Douglas DC-4. The businessman kept in close communication with several key figures in the market. For instance, he aligned with Donald W. Douglas, the founder of the Douglas Aircraft Company, to plan important projects.

Eddie Rickenbacker
Eddie Rickenbacker passed away on July 23rd, 1973, at the age of 82. Photo: Getty Imahes

The right backing

The pioneer had a love for the aviation industry. This factor contributed to Eastern’s rise to become a powerhouse for much of the 20th century.

Rickenbacker said the following, as reported by HistoryNet:

“I will always keep in mind that I am in the greatest business in the world, as well as working for the greatest company in the world, and I can serve humanity more completely in my line of endeavor than in any other.”

Rickenbacker also had great business sense. This expertise undoubtedly proved useful for his airline.

He added the following, as per HistoryNet’s report:

“If you cannot afford it, do without it. If you cannot pay cash for it, wait until you can; but do not in any circumstances permit yourself to mortgage your future and that of your family through time payment plans or other devices.”

Eastern was a household name in the eastern region of the United States and it was a vessel for many to visit Florida and the Caribbean for a spot of winter sun. The firm was the first major carrier to make the most of north-south routes along the East Coast. Other revolutions included shuttle flights between New York and Washington, which started in the early 1960s. This was then expanded between Boston and New York.

In 1989, the Eastern Air Lines Shuttle was sold to Donald Trump and it became the Trump Shuttle. Photo: Getty Images

Industry transformations

However, just like many trunk airlines, Eastern struggled with major market shakeups in the 1970s and 1980s. The New York Times highlights that the operator was finding it hard to cope with the impact of the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. Analysts at the time attribute the poor response by management to increased pressures amid a new competitive landscape creating a downfall for the carrier. Low-cost outfits such as People Express had emerged, expanding over much of Eastern’s route network

Eastern Air Lines Boeing 747
Eastern Air Lines also traveled across the continents with its widebody aircraft. Photo: Daniel Tanner via Wikimedia Commons

In 1986, the airline was sold to Texas Air. However, the following year, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) imposed a $9.5 million fine on Eastern after a special audit found over 78,000 violations of maintenance and safety regulations.

This was the largest fine against an airline in history at the time. Then in 1988, the carrier’s president, Phil Bakes, announced plans to lay off 4,000 employees while reducing westbound services.

Eastern Air Lines A300 Aircraft
The 1980s was a critical time for the US aviation industry overall. Photo: clipperarctic via Wikimedia Commons

The curtain call

Eventually, Eastern filed for protection from its creditors on March 9th, 1989, after a strike by the machinists’ union five days earlier rocked its services. However, it continued to struggle for nearly two years to rebuild under bankruptcy protection.

Low fares initially brought back old Eastern passengers who had defected to the likes of Delta and USAir. However, the rebuilding process faced a huge knock following the steep rise in the price of jet fuel amid the invasion of Kuwait. Business travel also soon slowed down as the US economy went through a downturn. Despite a large advertising budget, the carrier found it hard to adapt or shake its reputation following battles with its unions.

Pan Am 747
Eastern Air Lines wasn’t the only carrier in the United States to face difficulty following deregulation, with Pan Am also ceasing operations in 1991. Photo: Getty Images

Therefore, on January 19th, 1991, it was announced that Eastern would cease operations and plan to liquidate its assets. Approximately, 5,000 of the airline’s 18,000 employees were expected to be dismissed immediately. Meanwhile, it was planned that the remaining workers would stay on a little longer to run ground operations.

Eastern Airlines Getty
There have been subsequent airlines using the Eastern name since the original carrier’s closure. Photo: Getty Images

Altogether, generations of Americans would have had plenty of memories of flying on Eastern Air Lines’ services for over 60 years. Ultimately, the company ended its run while being the country’s eighth-largest airline.

What are your thoughts about the story of Eastern Air Lines’ final years? Did you fly with the carrier over the decades? Let us know what you think of the airline in the comment section.