Eastern Airlines started operations in 1927 as a mail carrier, serving the East Coast, from New Jersey to Florida. For three decades, it was extremely profitable and had a lock on the Northeast. However, many of its routes were short-haul, such as New York-Pittsburgh and many were not heavily traveled. It did not have a lot of 'trunk-routes'--e.g., New York-Los Angeles.
Eastern's downfall really began in 1959, when it ordered a large fleet of the Lockheed Electra turboprop.
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Photo © Mel Lawrence
At the same time, other airlines were taking deliveries of jet aircraft. On a flight from New York to Chicago, a passenger could fly on an Eastern Airlines turboprop, or an American Airlines 707. Of course, many went for the jets, so Eastern lost a lot of customers with obsolete equipment. But it was stuck with its turboprops, which no-one wanted. Things improved somewhat with the introduction of the Boeing 727 and McDonnell-Douglas DC-9. They offered jet service to small communities which normally didn't get jet service. However, Eastern did not gain ground commercially.
The 1970s were a very turbulent time for Eastern, as it coped with dropping passenger loads and the economic crises of those times, as well as weak leadership. The Deregulation Act of 1978 did not help things as there was a sudden burst of cutthroat competition among the airlines and Eastern did not have the financial resources to keep up. By the mid-1980s, Eastern operated a fleet that was obsolete and expensive to operate, yet it could not afford to buy new aircraft. By the end of the 1980s, Eastern operated planes from four manufacturers--Boeing, McDonnell-Douglas, Lockheed and Airbus.
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Photo © Howard Chaloner
Things went from bad to worse when Frank Lorenzo took over Eastern. He slashed pay and benefits, demanded everyone work six-day weeks and diverted funds from Eastern to other enterprises as well as grounding aircraft. The mud hit the fan in early 1989 when pilots and machinists decided that they had had enough and went on strike. Flights were curtailed. At one point, it looked as though Baseball tycoon, Peter Ueberoth might be interested in buying the airline, but the deal fell through when the unions voted down the agreement. Now the death watch began. Eastern sold off a number of routes, including the highly profitable and innovative Boston-New York-Washington D.C. which it had begun in 1961. A spike in oil prices, due to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 was the straw that broke the camel's back. Eastern ceased operations on January 17, 1991, after nearly sixty-four years of flying.