Eastern Air Lines
IATA ICAO Callsign
FoundedApril 19, 1926 (1926-04-19)
(as Pitcairn Aviation)
Ceased operationsJanuary 18, 1991 (1991-01-18)
Secondary hubs
Focus cities
Frequent-flyer programOnePass
SubsidiariesEastern Air Lines Shuttle (1961–1989)
Parent companyTexas Air Corporation (1986–1991)
HeadquartersMiami-Dade County, Florida, United States
Key people
FoundersEddie Rickenbacker (First CEO)

Eastern Air Lines, also colloquially known as Eastern, was a major airline in the United States that operated from 1926 to 1991. Before its dissolution, it was headquartered at Miami International Airport in an unincorporated area of Miami-Dade County, Florida.[1]

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.

During airline deregulation in the late 1970s and early 1980s, labor disputes and high debt loads strained the company under the leadership of former astronaut Frank Borman.[2] Frank Lorenzo acquired Eastern in 1985 and moved many of its assets to his other airlines, including Continental Airlines and Texas Air Corporation. After continued labor disputes and a crippling strike in 1989, Eastern ran out of money and was liquidated in 1991.[3]

American Airlines obtained many of Eastern's routes from Miami International Airport to Latin America and the Caribbean, while Delta Air Lines, Eastern's main competitor at Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport, acquired many of Eastern's Lockheed L-1011 TriStar aircraft.[4] USAir acquired 11 of Eastern's 25 Boeing 757-225 aircraft.

Eastern pioneered hourly air shuttle services between New York City, Washington, D.C., and Boston in 1961 as the Eastern Air Lines Shuttle. It took over Braniff International's South American routes following Braniff's closure in 1982[5] and served London Gatwick in 1985 via its McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 "Golden Wings" service. Although Eastern announced on its March 2, 1986 timetable that it intended to initiate service to Madrid, effective May 1, 1986, it never commenced. The only scheduled transatlantic service Eastern provided was Miami to London Gatwick, commencing on July 15, 1985 and discontinuing the following year, in 1986, replaced with codeshare flights from Atlanta on British Caledonian Airways.



Pitcairn Aviation's PA-7S CAM-19 Route Airmail aircraft
An Eastern Air Lines passenger coupon in 1935

Eastern Air Lines was a composite of assorted air travel corporations, including Florida Airways and Pitcairn Aviation. In the late 1920s, Pitcairn Aviation won a contract to fly mail between New York City and Atlanta, Georgia on Mailwing single-engine aircraft. In 1929, Clement Keys, the owner of North American Aviation, purchased Pitcairn. In 1930, Keys changed the company's name to Eastern Air Transport. After being purchased by General Motors and experiencing a change in leadership after the Airmail Act of 1934, the airline became known as Eastern Air Lines.[6]

Growth under Rickenbacker

The Great Silver Fleet in 1939

By 1937, Eastern's route system stretched from New York to Washington, Atlanta, and New Orleans, and from Chicago to Miami.[7] In the same year, it operated 20 daily flights and returns, every hour on the hour, between New York and Washington; the flight time was one hour, twenty minutes, one-way.[8]

In 1938, World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker bought Eastern from General Motors. The complex deal was concluded when Rickenbacker together with Sideny Shannon[9] presented Alfred P. Sloan with a certified check for US$3,500,000 (equivalent to $72,760,000 in 2022).[10]

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. On October 1, 1959, Rickenbacker's position as CEO was taken over by Malcolm A. MacIntyre, a brilliant lawyer but a man inexperienced in airline operations.'[11] Rickenbacker's ouster was largely due to his reluctance to acquire expensive jets as 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.[11]

In 1956, Eastern bought Colonial Airlines, giving the airline its first routes to Canada.[12]

The Jet Age

An Eastern Air Lines DC-3 on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
An Eastern Air Lines Electra, at Washington National Airport in 1975
A Boeing 747 showing Eastern Airlines' longtime livery of a cheatline extended up the tail in 1971

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 City 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 Airlines and United Airlines) had helped Boeing to develop. On February 1, 1964, Eastern was the first airline to fly the 727. 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[13] and the launch customer for the Boeing 757.[14]

On April 30, 1961, Eastern inaugurated Eastern Air Lines Shuttle. Initially 95-seat Lockheed Constellation 1049s and 1049Cs left New York-LaGuardia every two hours, 8 am to 10 pm, to Washington National and to Boston.[15] Flights soon became hourly, 7 am to 10 pm out of each city. No reservations or tickets were required; passengers could pay their fare in cash on board the flight. If a plane filled up at departure time, another plane was rolled out to carry any extra passengers.

Internationalization began as Eastern opened routes to markets such as Santo Domingo and Nassau, Bahamas. Services from San Juan, Puerto Rico's Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport were expanded. In 1967, Eastern purchased Mackey Airlines, a small air carrier primarily operating in Florida and the Bahamas as part of this expansion. In 1973, Eastern purchased Caribair (Puerto Rico), a small airline based in Puerto Rico which operated McDonnell Douglas DC-9-30 jets in the Caribbean.[16]

Eastern bought the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar and Airbus A300 widebody jets; the former would become known in the Caribbean as El Grandote (the huge one). Although Eastern had purchased four 747s, the delivery slots were sold to Trans World Airlines (TWA) when Eastern decided to purchase the L-1011.

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 RB211 programme might easily have foundered in 1971 if it had not been for the steadfast support of Eastern Airlines, one of the major launch customers for the Lockheed TriStars. The President of Eastern was Sam Higginbottom, who never wavered and thereby acquired some criticism.

Just before Walt Disney World opened in 1971, Eastern became its "official airline". It remained the official airline of Walt Disney World and sponsored a ride at the Magic Kingdom park (If You Had Wings in Tomorrowland where Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin is currently located) until its contracting route network forced Disney to switch to Delta shortly before Eastern's 1989 bankruptcy filing.

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 astronaut Frank 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".


An Eastern Boeing 727-25 outside the terminal at John F Kennedy Airport in 1970
An Eastern Douglas DC-8-21 at Miami International Airport in 1970
Eastern's Lockheed TriStar Whisperliner landing at Miami in 1976
A 1982 photo of a McDonnell Douglas DC-9, a stretched DC-9-51 model, which served Eastern from 1965 until the airline's closure
A Eastern Airbus A300 at Saint Maarten in 1986

In 1975, Eastern was headquartered at 10 Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan.[19] After Frank Borman became president of Eastern Air Lines in late 1975, he moved Eastern's headquarters from Rockefeller Center to Miami-Dade County, Florida.[2][20]

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.

In 1980, a Caribbean hub was started at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport (known at the time as "Isla Verde International Airport") near San Juan, Puerto Rico. In 1982, Eastern acquired Braniff's South American route network. By 1985, Eastern was the largest IATA airline in terms of passengers and operated in 26 countries on three continents.

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. 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, served 18 cities in the United States connecting mainly to Houston (IAH). 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.".[21]

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.

Sale to Texas Air

Unable to keep up, Borman agreed to the sale of the airline in 1986 to Texas Air, led by Frank Lorenzo, which had already purchased Continental Airlines and lost a bidding war for TWA to Carl Icahn.

In February 1987, the Federal Aviation Administration imposed a $9.5 million fine against Eastern Air Lines for safety violations,[22] which was the largest fine assessed against an airline until American Airlines was fined $24.2 million in 2010.[23]

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 The New York Times that Eastern's prominence in the Miami area decreased as the city became a finance and trade center with a diversified local economy, instead of one based largely on tourism.[24]


During Lorenzo's tenure, Eastern was crippled by severe labor unrest. Asked to accept deep cuts in pay and benefits, on March 4, 1989, Lorenzo locked out Eastern's mechanics and ramp service employees, represented by the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM). Concerned that Lorenzo's successful breaking of the IAM 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, which effectively shut down the airline's domestic operations. Non-contract employees, including airport gate and ticket counter agents and reservation sales agents, could not honor the strike. Due to the lockout and sympathy strike, cancelled flights resulted in the loss of millions of dollars in revenue.[citation needed]

As a result of the strike, a weakened airline structure, high fuel prices, an inability to compete after deregulation and other financial problems, Eastern filed for bankruptcy protection on March 9,[25] which allowed Lorenzo to continue operating the airline with non-union employees. Lorenzo initially sought a sale of the entire airline, and on April 6, Eastern agreed to be acquired by former Major League Baseball commissioner Peter Uberroth for $464 million. However, the transaction was terminated on April 12 after Lorenzo refused to give temporary control to a trustee. The sale process was then terminated on April 18, and Lorenzo proposed a sale of $1.8 million in assets that would allow the airline to continue operating independently.[26]

In May 1989, Eastern sold its East Coast shuttle service to real estate mogul Donald Trump for $365 million. Trump continued operating the service as the Trump Shuttle. In August, Eastern signed a deal to sell sixteen DC-9 aircraft and gates in Philadelphia, Washington, and New York to Midway Airlines for $210 million.[27] In May 1990, American Airlines acquired Eastern's Latin American routes and related assets for $471 million.[26]

After several failed attempts at obtaining creditor approval for restructing plans, Lorenzo lost control of Eastern in April 1990, when former Continental president Martin Shugrue was appointed as trustee to manage Eastern's reorganization. A report prepared by David Shapiro, an examiner appointed by the bankruptcy court overseeing Eastern's bankruptcy filing, concluded that Eastern was shortchanged by Texas Air in numerous transactions between the two. For example, Texas Air bought assets like System One, a computer reservation operation, from Eastern at a price far below market value.[28] Eastern tried to remain in business in an attempt to correct its cash flow, but to no avail.[29]

Ultimately, Eastern Airlines stopped flying at midnight on Saturday, January 19, 1991. 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.[30] The Eastern shutdown eliminated many airline industry jobs in the Miami and New York City areas.[31]

Later that month, Delta Air Lines acquired Eastern's gates at Atlanta, and Northwest Airlines acquired Eastern's gates at Washington National.[26]

Company slogans

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A lapel pin of Eastern Air Lines.
Revenue Passenger-Miles (Millions)[35] (Scheduled Service Only)
Eastern Caribair Mackey Midet Colonial
1951 1630 8 - - 94
1955 3583 11 8 1 129
1960 4764 27 22 (merged Mackey) (merged EA)
1965 7956 74 41
1970 14671 107 (merged EA)
1975 18169 (merged)
1981 26501
1985 33086
1989 11592


An Eastern Air Lines Lockheed L-1011-1 at Miami International Airport in 1989
An Eastern Air Lines Airbus A300B4-100 at Miami International Airport in 1990
An Eastern Air Lines Boeing 727-200 Advanced at Miami International Airport in 1990

Eastern Air Lines flew many different types of aircraft throughout its history.[36]

Eastern Air Lines Historical Fleet
Aircraft Total Introduced Retired Notes
Airbus A300B2 2 1980 1988
Airbus A300B4 32 1977 1991 First U.S. airline operator of this type
Aero Commander 500B 2 1965 1975
Boeing 720 15 1961 1970
Boeing 727-100 75 1964 1991 Launch customer
Boeing 727-200/Adv 99 1968 1991
Boeing 747-100 3 1971 1972 Leased from Pan Am before the L-1011 arrived
Boeing 747-200B Un­known Cancelled For planned services to Europe, bought from Qantas
One aircraft painted but never delivered
Boeing 757-200 25 1983 1991 Launch customer along with British Airways
Breguet 941 1 1968 1968 Demonstration use only
Convair 340 2 1973 1974
Convair 440 20 1957 1970
Convair 640 6 1973 1974
Curtiss C-46 Commando 2 1942 1943
Curtiss Condor 6 1930 1936
Curtiss Kingbird 14 1930 1934
Douglas DC-2 14 1934 1941
Douglas DC-3 76 1936 1957
Douglas DC-4 38 1946 1960
Douglas DC-6 6 1967 1967
Douglas DC-6B 10 1955 1962
Douglas DC-7B 54 1953 1966
Douglas DC-8-21 16 1960 1979
Douglas DC-8-51 3 1964 1972
Douglas DC-8-54CF 2 1965 1968 Leased from Capitol Air
Douglas DC-8-61 17 1967 1976
Douglas DC-8-63PF 6 1969 1974
Fokker F-10 2 1931 1931 Leased from General Air Lines
Ford Tri-Motor 4 1929 1933
Kellett KD-1 1 1939 1940
Lockheed Model 10 Electra 6 1935 1937
Lockheed L-049 Constellation 10 1956 1958
Lockheed L-749 Constellation 21 1947 1961
Lockheed L-1049 Super Constellation 76 1951 1968
Lockheed L-188 Electra 40 1959 1978 First and only turboprop aircraft flown by Eastern in mainline operation
Lockheed L-1011-1 TriStar 66 1972 1991 Launch customer along with Trans World Airlines. One written off as Eastern Air Lines Flight 401
Lockheed JetStar 2 1970 1973 For corporate use only
Martin 4-0-4 60 1951 1962 Largest operator of the type in operation
McDonnell Douglas DC-9-14 15 1965 1980
McDonnell Douglas DC-9-31 75 1967 1991
McDonnell Douglas DC-9-32 7 1987 1991
McDonnell Douglas DC-9-51 26 1978 1991
McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30 3 1985 1990 Formerly from Alitalia. Used for long range services to Europe and South America
Pitcairn Mailwing 54 1927 1937 First aircraft to begin operations as Eastern Air Transport Inc.
Rockwell Sabreliner 1 1969 1970
Travel Air 2000 1 Un­known Un­known

Eastern Express, Eastern Metro Express, Eastern Partner and Caribair

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. LIAT, a Caribbean-based airline, also operated Eastern Partner service.

Eastern Express air carriers and their aircraft included:[37][38]

Eastern Atlantis Express was operated by Atlantis Airlines with BAe Jetstream 31 aircraft.[39]

Eastern Metro Express was operated by Metro Airlines and was based at Eastern's Atlanta (ATL) hub operating British Aerospace BAe Jetstream 31 and de Havilland Canada DHC-8-100 Dash 8 turboprops.[40]

Eastern Partner was operated by a Caribbean-based airline, Leeward Islands Air Transport, with turboprop service between Eastern's San Juan hub and Antigua, St. Kitts and St. Maarten.[41]

Eastern also worked closely with another Caribbean-based airline, Caribair (Puerto Rico). The June 13, 1967 Eastern system timetable lists connecting flights operated by Caribair Convair 640 turboprops with service between Eastern's San Juan hub and St. Croix and St. Thomas.[42] By 1970, San Juan-based Caribair had become an all-jet airline operating McDonnell Douglas DC-9-30 aircraft serving fourteen Caribbean islands as well as Miami with the air carrier subsequently being acquired by Eastern in 1973.[43]

Accidents and incidents

Fatal accidents

Non-fatal accidents and incidents

Flight 601, the subject of a July 19, 1951 incident


New Eastern Air Lines

Main articles: Eastern Air Lines (2015) and Eastern Airlines, LLC

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 with Boeing 737-800 jetliners painted in the classic Eastern "hockey stick" livery. The IATA and ICAO codes of the original airline, as well as its callsign, were used by the new iteration of Eastern Air Lines.[87][88] After a sale to Swift Air, the trademarks were passed on to Eastern Airlines, LLC in 2018. On January 12, 2020, after nearly two decades of being officially defunct, the first flight of the renewed Eastern Airlines landed at JFK airport, heralding a new era for the brand name.[89]

See also



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  • Rickenbacker, Edward V. Rickenbacker: An Autobiography. New York: Prentice Hall, 1967.
  • Robinson, Jack E. Freefall: The Needless Destruction Of Eastern Air Lines. New York: HarperBusiness, 1992. ISBN 0-88730-556-3