By Asif Siddiqi, U.S. Centennial of Flight Commission
Eastern Airlines was one of the “Big Four” airlines that dominated
the passenger airline business in the United States for nearly 50 years.
Of the four, Eastern Airlines probably also had the most turbulent
The birth of Eastern Airlines is associated with the name of Clement
Keys, a former financial editor of The Wall Street Journal who was an
untiring promoter of multimillion-dollar aviation corporations in the
1920s and 1930s. In early 1929, Keys decided to purchase a small
Philadelphia-based airline known as Pitcairn Aviation, Inc., that had been
formed on September 15, 1927. Keys then sold Pitcairn to North American
Aviation, then a holding company for a number of airline and aircraft
companies in which he was one of the key shareholders. On January 17,
1930, Pitcairn's name was changed to Eastern Air Transport, Inc. and soon
after, the airline expanded its routes to include Atlanta, Miami, and
Boston and in August to Richmond, Virginia. Its fleet at the time
consisted of three Ford Trimotors and two Fokker F-X aircraft. These were
joined soon by Curtiss Condors and Kingbirds. World War I ace Eddie
Rickenbacker served as general manager of Eastern.
While most of the major airlines were focusing on transcontinental
flights, Eastern's specialty was the East Coast, and it was here that it
established a near monopoly. Through 1933, the airline acquired contracts
for a number of routes that spanned from New York to Miami. Eastern
catered to the high demand for quick passenger travel between the
northeastern states and the vacation areas of Florida.
In September 1933, the U.S. Senate set up a special committee to
investigate allegations of favoritism and excessive government subsidy for
the airmail carriers in the country. A major scandal over mail contracts
ensued, but the new Roosevelt administration—after a disastrous
interlude during which the military flew the mail—restored a revised
mail contract system in 1934. Airlines that had benefited from the
“Spoils Conference” in 1930 that had distributed key routes originally
were not allowed to bid for the new contracts. To get around this problem,
many airlines renamed themselves. As a result, Eastern Air Transport
became Eastern Air Lines.
Three EA DC-9s (including a
white one) and an Airbus 300B N205EA in the
background as seen in Atlanta, July 1980.
Image courtesy of AirNikon.
Find more of his photos at Airliners.net
In the 1930s, Eastern acquired a number of companies such as the
Wedell-Williams Transport Corporation (in December 1936) in order to
expand its routes. In April 1938, North American Aviation finally sold
Eastern because of criticism that it was unfair for a single company to
both produce and operate aircraft as North American did. Rickenbacker,
with the help of some of his associates, bought Eastern wholesale from
Rickenbacker was responsible for setting up Eastern's Great Silver
Fleet, a famous fleet of DC-2 aircraft that operated on the East Coast,
one of which became the first commercial airplane to touch down at
Washington, D.C.'s new National Airport in June 1941. It was also under
Rickenbacker's reign that Eastern became the world's first airline to
begin mail service using autogyros. On July 6, 1939, it began an autogyro
service in Philadelphia between the city's post office and Camden Airport
in New Jersey. The service lasted about a year. During this time, in the
late 1930s, Eastern was enjoying increasing profits year after year.
In World War II, Eastern joined in supporting the war effort. In March
1942, it began military support flights connecting Florida, Pennsylvania,
and Texas. Further routes were added to Trinidad in the Caribbean.
Eventually, in September 1942, Eastern created its Military Transport
Division (MTD) based in Miami comprising a fleet of Curtiss C-46 Commando
aircraft. In the civilian sector, Eastern gained a big victory when the
Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB), the organization that decided which airline
would fly which route, allowed Eastern in June 1944 to compete on the
prized New York-Boston route; previously American Airlines had held a
monopoly on the route.
After the war, Eastern became even stronger. In a move to replace its
aging DC-3 fleet, in April 1950, the company ordered ten of the new Lockheed
L.1049 Super Constellation airplanes. Eastern also successfully acquired a
Canadian company, Colonial Airlines, in June 1956 that allowed the airline
to begin service to Canadian cities such as Montreal and Ottawa. At the
time of the acquisition, Eastern Airlines had an unmatched safety record:
it had been operating as an airline for more than 25 years without a
single passenger fatality. It was undoubtedly the most important airline
on the East Coast of the United States, although it no longer held the
monopoly on key routes such as between New York and Miami. Eastern also
diversified into Mexico. On July 23, 1957, it began a New York-New
Orleans-Mexico City service using DC-7 aircraft.
In terms of its fleet, Eastern was quick to adopt jet planes. Eastern
was the first of the “Big Four” to begin using the Boeing
727 jet that would revolutionize air
travel. Eastern's first 727 flight took place on the
Philadelphia-Washington-Miami route on February 1, 1964. Eastern also used
the Douglas DC-9,
beginning February 1965. Rickenbacker had already left Eastern by then,
retiring on December 31, 1963 after nearly a quarter century leading the
To expand, Eastern executives were well aware that they would have to
extend their routes beyond the East Coast. As a result, in 1967, it began
flying passengers to the Bahamas and to Seattle on the West Coast. The
company also expanded into the Caribbean in 1971 by acquiring a small
Puerto Rican company known as Caribair. Eastern had experienced low growth
rates in the early 1960s, but affairs improved in the late 1970s. An
important turning point for Eastern was when the CAB granted the airline
rights to fly into Los Angeles. Eastern was thus able to inaugurate its
first coast-to-coast flight on September 21, 1969, the last of the “Big
Four” to do so. At the time, Eastern ranked fourth among this group in
terms of passenger-miles flown annually.
N311EA - an Eastern
L-1011 seen at the Marana Pinal Airpark, Arizona
in February 1984.
Image courtesy of AirNikon.
Find more of his photos at Airliners.net
In the 1970s, Eastern's big purchase was that of the European Airbus
A-300. Airbus had tried unsuccessfully
to break into the U.S. market for many years. After Airbus offered a very
generous deal to Eastern, Eastern's new president, former NASA astronaut
Frank Borman, agreed to buy 23 of the new jets in the spring of 1978. For
Airbus, this was one of the most important breakthroughs into the U.S.
market and ensured a reliable customer base for future Airbus models.
Eastern did not fare well in the 1980s. Under Borman's shaky command,
the company was in deep trouble as a result of major disagreements between
management and the labor unions, and also because of major debt from
purchases in the late 1970s. As Borman ineffectively tried to get pay cuts
to compensate for debts, Eastern began to rack up year after year of
losses until late 1985, when it had a debt of $3.5 billion. It was at this
point that Frank Lorenzo, the infamous airline powerbroker who controlled Continental
Airlines, stepped in. After Borman failed to get any significant
concessions from his trade unions, Lorenzo bought the whole airline for
only $615 million, adding Eastern to his existing prizes of People's
Express, Frontier Airlines, Texas Air, and New
Lorenzo was ruthless in using Eastern's core assets for his other
airlines, devising various ways to use them to make money for his other
properties. He let Texas Air “purchase” Eastern's advanced reservation
system but issued only an I.O.U. for it. Eastern then had to pay Texas Air
a monthly fee of $10 million to use its own system. He “sold” six of
Eastern's planes to Continental but paid nothing for them. The result was
that, to survive, Eastern had to sell off aircraft and lay off workers in
large numbers. As tensions mounted between the labor unions and Lorenzo's
harsh tactics, Lorenzo slowly began to dismantle Eastern and sell off its
parts. When the unions struck in March 1989, Lorenzo filed for bankruptcy.
This gave him some breathing room and allowed him to use strikebreakers to
continue operations. By this time, however, Eastern was collapsing under
its debt, and finally in January 1991, the airline completely ran out of
money to operate. In late 1991, the airline was liquidated. Thus ended the
life of one of America's greatest domestic airlines.
Note: This article was commissioned by and
first appeared on NASA's U.S. Centennial of Flight web site. It
appears here with permission. We gratefully acknowledge both the author