Eastern was one of the "Big Four" domestic airlines created by the Spoils Conferences of 1930, and was headed by World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker in its early years. It had a near monopoly in air travel between New York and Florida from the 1930s until the 1950s and dominated this market for decades afterward. Labor disputes and high debt loads strained the company in the late 1970s and early 1980s under the leadership of former astronaut Frank Borman. Frank Lorenzo acquired Eastern in 1985 and moved many of its assets to his other airlines, including Continental Airlines and Texas Air. After continued labor disputes and a crippling strike in 1989, Eastern ran out of money and was liquidated in 1991.American Airlines obtained many of Eastern's routes from Miami to Latin America and the Caribbean, while Delta Air Lines, Eastern's main competitor at Hartsfield Airport in Atlanta, acquired many of Eastern's Lockheed L-1011 aircraft.
In 1938 World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker bought Eastern from General Motors. The complex deal was concluded when Rickenbacker presented Alfred P. Sloan with a certified check for $3.5 million. In March 1939 Eastern had 15 weekday 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. Those flights and their returns were Eastern's whole scheduled operation; it fit on one page in the Airways Guide. Then as later, Eastern was the fourth largest airline in the country by passenger-miles (103 million in 1939).
Rickenbacker pushed Eastern into a period of growth and innovation; for a time Eastern was the most profitable airline in the post-war era, never needing state subsidy. In the late 1950s Eastern's position was eroded by subsidies to rival airlines and the arrival of the jet age. Rickenbacker's position as CEO was taken over by Malcolm A. MacIntyre, a brilliant lawyer but a man inexperienced in airline operations,' on October 1, 1959. Rickenbacker's ouster was largely due to his reluctance to acquire expensive jets; like many others, he underestimated their appeal to the public. A new management team headed by Floyd D. Hall took over on 16 December 1963, and Rickenbacker left his position as Director and Chairman of the Board on December 31, 1963, aged 73.
In November 1959, Eastern 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). In 1960, Eastern's first jets, Douglas DC-8-21s, started to take over the longer flights, like the non-stops from Chicago and New York to Miami. The DC-8s were joined in 1962 by the Boeing 720 and in 1964 by the Boeing 727-100, which Eastern (along with American, and United) had helped Boeing develop. Eastern was the first airline to fly the 727 on February 1, 1964. Shortly after that, "Captain Eddie" Rickenbacker retired and a new image was adopted, which included the now famous hockey stick design, officially Caribbean Blue over Ionosphere Blue. Eastern was also the first US carrier to fly the Airbus A300 and the launch customer for the Boeing 757.
Due to massive delays in the L-1011 program, mainly due to problems with the Rolls-Royce RB211 engines, Eastern leased two Boeing 747-100s from Pan Am between 1970 and 1972 and operated the aircraft between Chicago and San Juan as well as from New York to Miami and San Juan.
The famous "Wings of Man" campaign in the late 1960s was created by advertising agency Young & Rubicam, and restored Eastern's tarnished image until the late 1970s, when former astronautFrank Borman became president and it was replaced by a new campaign, "We Have To Earn Our Wings Every Day". The new campaign, which featured Borman as a spokesperson, was used until the mid-to-late 1980s.
Under bankruptcy, Eastern launched a "100 Days" campaign, in which it promised to "become a little bit better every day".
Eastern's massive Atlanta hub was in direct competition with Delta Air Lines, where the two carriers competed heavily to neither's benefit. Delta's less-unionized work force and slowly expanding international route network helped lead it through the turbulent period following deregulation in 1978.
During this era, Eastern's fleet was split between their "silver-colored hockey stick" livery (the lack of paint reduced weight by 100 pounds) and their "white-colored hockey stick" livery (on its Airbus-manufactured planes, the metallurgy of which required paint to cover the aircraft's composite skin panels).
In 1983 Eastern became the launch customer of Boeing's 757, which was ordered in 1978. Borman felt that its low cost of operation would make it an invaluable asset to the airline in the years to come. However, higher oil prices failed to materialize and the debt created by this purchase coupled with the Airbus A300 purchases in 1977 contributed to the February 1986 sale to Frank Lorenzo's Texas Air. At that time, Eastern was paying over $700,000 in interest each day before they sold a ticket, fueled, or boarded a single aircraft.
Starting about 1985, Eastern offered "Moonlight Specials", with passenger seats on overnight flights scheduled for cargo from thirty freight companies. The flights, which operated between midnight and 7 am, stopped at 18 cities in the United States. Eric Schmitt of The New York Times said that the services were "a hybrid of late-night, red-eye flights and the barebones People Express approach to service." The holds of the aircraft were reserved for cargo such as express mail, machine tool parts, and textiles. Because of this, the airline allowed each passenger to take up to two carry-on bags. The airline charged $10 for each checked bag, which was shipped standby. The airline charged between 50 cents and $3 for beverages and snacks. Bunny Duck, an Eastern flight attendant quoted in The New York Times, said that the passengers on the special flights were "a cross section of families, college kids, illegal aliens and weirdos from L.A.".
Eastern began losing money as it faced competition from no-frills airlines, such as People Express, which offered lower 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.
Unable to keep up, Borman agreed to the sale of the airline in 1986 to Texas Air, led by Frank Lorenzo. Lorenzo (who was named as one of Time's 10 "worst bosses of the century") was known as a ruthless corporate raider and union buster. He had already purchased Continental Airlines and lost a bidding war for TWA to Carl Icahn.
In 1988, Phil Bakes, the president of Eastern Air Lines, announced plans to lay off 4,000 employees and eliminate and reduce service to airports in the Western United States; he said that the airline was going "back to our roots" in the East. At the time, Eastern was the largest corporate employer in the Miami area and remained so after the cuts. John Nordheimer wrote in a The New York Times article that the prominence of Eastern in the Miami area decreased as the city became a finance and trade center and as the area had a population increase-based economic growth, instead of a purely tourism-based growth.
During Lorenzo's tenure, Eastern was crippled by severe labor unrest. Asked to accept deep cuts in pay and benefits, on March 4, 1989, Frank Lorenzo locked out Eastern's mechanics and ramp service employees, represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). Concerned that if Lorenzo was successful in breaking the IAM he would do the same to the pilots' and flight attendants' unions, the pilots represented by Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and flight attendants represented by the Transport Workers Union (TWU) called a sympathy strike. Those actions effectively shut down the airline's domestic operations. Non-contract employees, including airport gate and ticket counter agents and reservation sales agents, did not honor the strike. Due to the lockout and sympathy strike, cancelled flights resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in revenue.
In 1989, Lorenzo sold Eastern Air Lines Shuttle to real estate magnate Donald Trump (who named it the Trump Shuttle) while selling other parts of Eastern to his Texas Air holding company and its subsidiary, Continental Airlines, at terms disadvantageous to Eastern. In 1989 George Berry, the Georgia Industry and Trade Commissioner, asked Eastern to consider moving its headquarters from the Miami area to the Atlanta area.
As a result of the strike, weakened airline structure, high fuel prices, inability to compete after deregulation and other financial problems, Eastern filed for bankruptcy protection on March 9, 1989. This allowed Lorenzo to continue operating the airline with non-union employees. When control of the airline was taken away from Lorenzo by the courts and given to Marty Shugrue, it continued operations in an attempt to correct its cash flow, but to no avail.
The airline stopped flying at midnight Saturday, January 19, 1991. On the previous evening company agents, unaware of the decision, continued to take reservations and told callers that the airline was not closing. Following the announcement, 5,000 of the 18,000 employees immediately lost their jobs. Of the remaining employees, reservation agents were told to report to work at their regular times, while other employees were told not to report to work unless asked to do so. The Eastern shutdown eliminated many airline industry jobs in the Miami and New York City areas.
McDonnell Douglas DC-10 (long-range DC-10-30s formerly operated by Alitalia leased to operate long range service to Europe and South America 1985-1990, including Miami-London, Miami-Buenos Aires and Miami-Los Angeles-Santiago) (3)
Several regional and commuter airlines provided passenger feed for Eastern via code sharing agreements with their aircraft liveries reflecting the Eastern mainline paint scheme. There were a number of brandings including: Eastern Express, Eastern Atlantis Express, and Eastern Metro Express.
Eastern Express air carriers and their aircraft included:
Eastern weathered crashes over the years of varying damage to the company and passenger injuries and deaths. Some of the crashes contributed to the future safety of American air transportation, such as Eastern's first accident caused by the construction of temporary utility poles at the end of a runway.
On 26 February 1941, Eastern Air Lines Flight 21, a Douglas DC-3, crashed near Atlanta, almost killing Eddie Rickenbacker, who was traveling on airline business. His recovery in the hospital received broad press coverage; during his initial recovery several news reports claimed that he had died.
On 12 July 1945, a US Army Air Forces A-26C-35-DT Invader, 44-35553, on a training flight had mid-air collision with Eastern Air Lines Flight 45 from Washington, D.C. to Columbia, S.C., a DC-3-201C, NC25647, c/n 2235, at ~3100 feet, 11.9 miles WNW of Florence, South Carolina at 1436 hrs. The A-26's vertical tail fin struck the port wing of the airliner, displacing the DC-3's engine which cut into fuselage; A-26 tail sheared off, two crew parachuted but only one survived. DC-3 pilot belly landed in a cornfield, one passenger, an infant, of 24 total on board killed.
On 30 May 1947, Eastern Air Lines Flight 605, a Douglas DC-4 en route from Newark to Miami, crashed near Bainbridge, Maryland, killing all 53 aboard. At the time, Flight 605 was the deadliest crash in United States aviation history. Only "loss of control" was cited as the reason for the crash.
On November 1, 1949, Eastern Air Lines Flight 537, registration N88727, was a Douglas DC-4 en route from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. via intermediate points on November 1, 1949. NX-26927 was a Lockheed P-38 Lightning being test-flown for acceptance by the Government of Bolivia by Erick Rios Bridoux of the Bolivian Air Force. The two aircraft collided in mid-air at an altitude of 300 feet about half a mile southwest of the threshold of Runway 3 at Washington National Airport, killing all 55 aboard the DC-4 and seriously injuring the pilot of the P-38. At the time it was the deadliest airliner incident in United States history.
On December 21, 1955, Eastern Air Lines Flight 642, a Lockheed Constellation, crashed on approach to Jacksonville's Imeson Airport arriving from Miami, with further scheduled stops at Washington, DC, New York and Boston. Twelve passengers and a crew of five were killed.
On March 17, 1970: Eastern Air Lines Shuttle Flight 1320, carrying passengers from Newark to Boston was hijacked around 7:30 P.M. by John J. Divivo who was armed with a .38 caliber revolver. Captain Robert Wilbur Jr., 35, a former Air Force pilot who was promoted to captain just six months prior, was shot in the arm by the suicidal hijacker. With a .38 slug in his arm and bleeding profusely, he landed his aircraft safely while talking to the tower, telling them his copilot was shot (but not himself) and needed an ambulance. His copilot, First Officer James Hartley, 31, was shot without warning by Divivo and collapsed. Divivo then turned the gun on the captain, causing his arm injury. Despite being fatally wounded Hartley recovered sufficiently to rip the gun from Divivo's hand, and shoot the would-be hijacker three times before lapsing into unconsciousness, and eventually death. Although wounded and slumped between the seats, Divivo arose and began clawing at Captain Wilbur, attempting to force a crash. Wilbur hit Divivo over the head with the gun he had retrieved from the center console. The pilot was able to land the plane safely at Logan International Airport, and the hijacker was arrested immediately.
On June 24, 1975, Eastern Air Lines Flight 66 (a Boeing 727) crashed into the runway approach lights, as it penetrated a thunderstorm which was astride the ILS localizer course line to that runway, at JFK in New York City, killing 113 people. The official cause of the accident was a sudden high rate of descent, caused by severe downdrafts from the thunderstorm, and the continued use of that runway by both flight crews and ATC, after they became aware of the location of the hazardous weather. The aircraft hit a motorcyclist on impact, and ABA basketball star Wendell Ladner was one of the passengers killed in the crash. Most of the deceased were killed by fire after impact rather than the crash itself. The two flight attendants in the rear of the plane survived the fire because they were doused with the liquid contents of the rear lavatories, which kept them alive. The aircraft that landed on the same runway just prior was an Eastern L-1011 that managed to fight through the wind shear by both pilots putting their feet on the instrument panel and pulling back on the control column with all of their strength. After landing, they radioed the tower to close that runway, but it was too late for EAL Flight 66.
In 2011, a group purchased the intellectual property, including trademarks, of Eastern Air Lines and formed the Eastern Air Lines Group. The group announced in early 2014 that it had filed an application with the United States Department of Transportation for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity, which will be followed by certification with the Federal Aviation Administration. The new airline began service through charter and wet-lease flights out of Miami International in late 2014. The IATA and ICAO codes of the classic Eastern Air Lines, as well as its callsign, are now used by the new iteration of Eastern Air Lines.