Eastern Airlines

From Academic Kids

For the Chinese airline, see China Eastern Airlines.

Eastern Airlines was a United States airline company that existed from the late 1920s until 1991.



Eastern Air Lines began life on April 19, 1926 as Pitcairn Aviation. Pitcairn won a government contract to fly the US Mail between New York City and Atlanta, Georgia, operating Mailwing single-engine aircraft. In 1929 Clement Keys, the owner of North American Aviation, purchased Pitcairn. In 1930 he changed the name to Eastern Air Transport, and it would soon be known as Eastern Airlines.

In 1938, the airline was purchased by World War I flying ace, Eddie Rickenbacker. Rickenbacker pushed Eastern into a period of prodigious growth. Throughout the 1940s, competitors were acquired, more advanced planes were purchased and international routes were opened. By the 1950s, Eastern's propellers were very prominent up and down the East coast of the United States.

In 1960 Eastern's first jets, Douglas DC-8s arrived, allowing Eastern to open non-stop service from New York City's Idlewild International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California. The DC-8s were joined in 1962 by a regional airliner, the Boeing 727. Around this time, Eastern started changing their plane's livery colors to include the dark blue hockey stick design, iconic in the airline industry.

The 1970s brought dramatic changes in the configuration of Eastern Airlines. Internationalization began as Eastern opened routes to new markets such as Madrid, Mexico City, Santo Domingo, Nassau, Bahamas and London. Services from San Juan's Luis Munoz Marin International Airport were expanded, and Eastern bought the Lockheed L-1011 jet, which would become known in the Caribbean as El Grandote (the huge one).

Boeing 747s, leased from Pan Am, were also introduced for a short time during that period, and Eastern became the official airline of Walt Disney World. Eastern's official ride at Disney's Magic Kingdom park was If You Had Wings.

During the 1970s, Eastern Airlines flights suffered several crashes, one of which became a subject for a Hollywood movie. Eastern Airlines Flight 401 was preparing to land in Miami, Florida in 1972, when the flight crew became distracted by a non-functioning gear light. While pre-occupied with fixing the light, the autopilot was inadvertently disengaged, allowing the plane to drift far below its planned flight path. The flight crashed in the Everglades, near the same site of the ValuJet Flight 592 DC-9 crash 23 years later. In Eastern's flight 401 case, it was rumored that the ghost of the pilot who flew that night was later seen on some Eastern planes that carried parts of the doomed plane. While this was largely an unproven legend, it was the subject of the movie The Ghost Of Flight 401 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077610/).

In 1975 Eastern Flight 66 (a Boeing 727) crashed on landing at JFK in New York City, killing 113 people. The official cause of the accident was wind shear, a phenomenon that affects the lifting capacity of an airplane's wing, and that can occur in severe weather conditions.

The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 aggravated its position, forcing Eastern into a competitive low-fare environment in which its high cost of operation put the airline at a decided disadvantage. Its all-important Atlanta hub placed it in direct competition with Delta Air Lines, a more profitable company that avoided labor wars and built a far-reaching route system through the acquisition of other carriers.

Eastern was rolling along when the 1980s started, under its new president, former astronaut Frank Borman. In 1980, a Caribbean hub was inaugurated at San Juan, Puerto Rico (then still named Isla Verde International Airport). In 1982, Eastern acquired Braniff International's South American route network. And while this all was going on, Eastern enjoyed splitting their fleet between their "silver colored hockey stick" livery (the lack of paint reduced weight by a hundred pounds) and their "white colored hockey stick" livery (on its Airbus-manufactured planes, whose metallurgy required paint).

In 1983, Eastern became the launch customer of Boeing's new aircraft, the Boeing 757. Its low cost of operation would make it an invaluable asset to the airline in the years to come. In that same year, Eastern reintroduced service to Ponce, Puerto Rico, using Fairchild Swearinger planes under the name Eastern Metro Express. The Eastern Metro Express operation wasn't limited to Ponce, however, as, under that name, Eastern began services from its San Juan hub to Mayaguez and several other smaller Caribbean communities, from JFK to several northeastern cities, and from Miami to many cities around the South.

Eastern began losing money as it faced competition from no-frills airlines, such as People Express, which offered drastically reduced fares. In an attempt to differentiate itself from its bargain competitors, Eastern began a marketing campaign stressing its quality of service and its rank of highly experienced pilots. The public, however, just wanted cheap fares.

Unable to keep up, in 1986, Borman sold the airline to Frank Lorenzo. Under Lorenzo's tenure, Eastern was crippled by severe labor unrest. Asked to accept deep cuts in benefits, Eastern's machinists went on strike. Lorenzo sold Eastern's shuttle service to real estate magnate Donald Trump in 1989, under whom it became the Trump Shuttle, while selling other parts of Eastern to his Texas Air holding company and its major subsidiary, Continental Airlines, on disadvantageous terms to Eastern. The machinists were soon joined on the picket line by the pilots. Due to the strike, flights were cancelled, resulting in lost revenue for the airline. As a result of the strike and other financial problems, Eastern filed for bankruptcy protection on March 9.

The coup de grace for Eastern, it can be said, was the 1990 Gulf War. At a nice profit, Eastern sold its Central and South American route network to American Airlines and its transatlantic route network to Continental Airlines. With the higher oil prices and the public's fear of flying at the time, Eastern's sales kept suffering, and Eastern had its last flight in January 1991, officially shutting down on January 18.

Attempts at revival

An airline entrepreneur, Martin Shugrue, considered reviving Eastern in 1995, but the decision was made to instead revive Pan Am.

Eastern Shuttle

In 1961 Eastern inaugurated the Eastern Air Shuttle, featuring hourly flights of Lockheed Constellations and Electras between New York-LaGuardia, Washington, DC-National, and Boston-Logan Airports.

The service emphasized convenience and simplicity—revolutionary in an era when air travel was both considered and expected to be a luxury. Not only were seat reservations not required, seat assignments were not given, and initially no check-in was required and no boarding passes were issued. Eastern guaranteed availability, however, and planes flew hourly whether empty or full. In the event of a full flight, Eastern simply added another aircraft. Jets were added in 1967 and the shuttle became all-jet in 1978 with a fleet of dedicated Boeing 727s.

The shuttle proved one of Eastern's most successful ventures. Other airlines, including Pan American World Airways, eventually set up competing services. In 1989, financially struggling Eastern sold the operation to real estate magnate Donald Trump, who rebranded it the Trump Shuttle.


Eastern Airlines used the IATA designator code EA.


Eastern Airlines used the ICAO designator code EAL.

Other facts and quotes of interest

  • Eastern used to be the main sponsor of Puerto Rican basketball team Cariduros de Fajardo, team which carried Eastern's logo on their jerseys.
  • Boxer Wilfredo Gomez was pictured by El Vocero photographers inside an Eastern Airlines L-1011 jet before taking off for his bout with Lupe Pintor in New Orleans, Louisiana.
  • "Capitalism without bankruptcy is like Christianity without hell." -Frank Borman, former CEO of Eastern Airlines in 1986, five years before Eastern declared bankruptcy.

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