The Story Of Eastern Air Lines – From Boom To Bust

Eastern Air Lines is one of those carriers that most will have heard of but not many will have flown. We take a look at the rise and fall of this once great US carrier.

Eastern Air Lines
What happened to Eastern Air Lines? Photo: Wikimedia

The beginnings of Eastern Air Lines

The origins of Eastern Air Lines can be traced back to the late 1920s when, flying as Pitcairn Aviation, its life began as a simple air mail carrier. It was bought in 1929 by Clement Keys, owner of North American Aviation, who changed its name to Eastern Air Transport. The Airmail Act of 1934 saw a change in the aviation landscape, which led Eastern to split off from North American Aviation, and to start trading as Eastern Air Lines.

Pitcairn Aviation
The small mail plane of Pitcairn Aviation. Photo: Wikimedia

Under the management of WWI ace and race car driver Eddie Rickenbacker, the airline began to grow. Using a fleet of two Fokker F-X and three Ford aircraft, with Curtiss Condors and Kingbirds added later, its route network expanded massively. Over the next few years, it added connections to Atlanta, Miami, Boston and Richmond.

At the time, the majority of the big airlines in the US were heavily focused on transcontinental flying. However, Eastern were different, homing in instead on connecting the East Coast. Within a few years, the carrier had secured a number of routes spanning from New York in the north to Miami in the south. Their near monopoly on inter-East Coast services attracted high demand from passengers looking to vacation in the Florida area.

Adopting the tagline ‘Number one to the sun’, Eastern enjoyed rapid growth throughout the 30s. In 1983, Rickenbacker along with his business partners bought the airline from General Motors. A year later, Eastern was the fourth largest airline in the US by passenger numbers.

After the war

Eastern played its part in WWII, providing military air transport services between Florida, Pennsylvania and Texas. When the war ended, Eastern Air Lines emerged stronger than ever, and ready to continue building its empire. It was the most profitable airline in post-war times, and never required any government subsidies.

DC-4 Eastern Air Lines
Eastern built a ‘Great Silver Fleet’ of DC-4s after the war. Photo: Wikimedia

However, the man who made Eastern what it was, Eddie Rickenbacker, was becoming a thorn in the side of the successful carrier. Unwilling to invest in expensive jet aircraft, he was eventually ousted and replaced by Malcolm MacIntyre as CEO in 1959. He stayed on as Chairman of the Board until 1963, when he eventually left the airline after a quarter of a century of service.

The 50s and 60s saw some key moments in Eastern’s history. It bought Colonial Airlines, giving it the ability to start routes into Canada. It also began service to Mexico City, and opened its own terminal at New York’s Idlewild Airport (later renamed John F Kennedy Airport).

Entering the jet age

Eastern Air Lines was not to be left behind in the race to become a jet engine operator. In 1960 it acquired the first of 16 DC-8-21s it would fly, and in 1961, it began operating flights with a Boeing 720. 1964 saw Eastern become the launch customer for the Boeing 727-100, of which it went on to operate a fleet of 75.

Eastern Air Lines 727
Eastern Air Lines was the launch customer of the Boeing 727. Photo: Wikimedia

Through the 60s and 70s, Eastern’s fleet and routes expanded massively. It was the launch customer for numerous other game-changing aircraft, including the Lockheed L 1011-1 TriStar, and was the first US airline to operate the Airbus A300. It became the official airline of Walt Disney World when it opened in 1971, and remained so for almost 20 years.

Problems in the 80s

The late 70s had been hard on Eastern, as competition from Delta at its new hub in Atlanta sparked a price war that ate into its profits. Deregulation in ’78 only added to its woes as more carriers with lower fares began to encroach on its territory.

The airline struggled on, becoming the launch customer for the Boeing 757, an aircraft which the then-presidentFrank Borman hoped would turn its fortunes around. However, the low prices of oil made the savings from this new aircraft almost negligible, and the debt accrued from this and the purchase of the Airbus A300s weighed heavily on the airline’s balance sheet.

Eastern Air Lines 757
Eastern Air Lines hoped the 757 would save them. Photo: Wikimedia

At one point, it was paying out more than $700,000 a day in interest, before any flights had taken off.

At breaking point, Borman eventually sold the airline to Texas Air in 1986. Texas was under the leadership of Frank Lorenzo, who had also recently bought Continental Airlines too. However, shortly after the sale, the FAA hit Eastern with the biggest fine in aviation history (until 2010, when American Airlines was fined $24.2m), charging the carrier $9.5m for ‘safety violations’.

First Class Cabin, L1011 aircraft. 1980
First Class flight attendants in 1980. Photo: Clipperarctic via Flickr

With more money going out than coming in, Eastern was forced to scale back. Employees were laid off, and those who stayed had to face deep cuts in pay and benefits. Labor disputes were rife, leading to costly flight cancellations which lost the airline millions in revenue. Eastern Air Shuttle was sold off, eventually becoming the Trump Shuttle. Other parts were sold off to Texas Airlines and Continental until, finally, the airline filed for bankruptcy in 1989.

The final flight of Eastern Air Lines took place on Saturday 19th January, 1991. At its peak, it had clocked up more than 33,000 passenger miles a year; in 1989, it achieved just 11,000.

Where are they now?

You might think that this is the end of the Eastern Air Lines story, but there’s a twist in the tail. In 2011, a group bought the trademarks and intellectual property rights of the defunct carrier, and in 2014 filed an application to begin service in the US. It began using Boeing 737s to provide wet lease services out of Miami International in late 2014, using the traditional ‘hockey stick’ livery.

New Eastern Air Lines
The new Eastern Air Lines with the old livery. Photo: Wikimedia

So if you’ve seen Eastern Air Lines at an airport recently, you’re not necessarily going mad.