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Losing Eastern Airlines All Over Again

If there is an American airline other than PanAm that has captured hearts and minds, it would have to be Eastern Airlines. The original airline ran from 1926 to 1991 and was one of the premier airlines in the country. It wasn’t a perfect airline, but the name of Eastern had a certain cachet to it.

I have my own attachment to Eastern. It was the airline that I used to take my first plane ride at 5 years old. My mother and I flew from Detroit to Miami and then on to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to see my mother’s uncle who wasn’t doing well. I can still remember the captain’s wings I received during my maiden flight.

Since Eastern had a major presence in San Juan, it was the airline of choice for my Mom and her side of the family when they made the trip from Puerto Rico to Michigan. I always loved driving to Detroit Metro airport to see the giant planes with the trademark shades of blue that would hug the plane and form a hockey stick when they reached the tail.

So, when Eastern shut down in 1991, it was something I took rather personally, because I had an intimate history with the airline. In my heart of hearts, I hoped someday the airline would return like a phoenix rising from the ashes. There were countless other fans of Eastern around the country and all of us shared the heartbreak of seeing such an iconic airline suffer such an ignominious ending.

Losing Eastern Airlines All Over Again

A pack of Eastern-branded cards I have, probably from a relative, circa 1970s.

There was another person that shared in the sorrow of Eastern shutting down, but also had hope the airline would rise again. The difference is he could do something about it.

Ed Wegel was an airline exec with years of experience in the industry and that included years working at the old Eastern. He was able to buy the assets (basically the name itself) with plans to restart the airline. Restarting defunct airlines has a not- so-good track record, with People’s Express and PanAm having been resurrected and ended over and over.

It took a few years, but there was a slow build to getting the airline up and running. Wegel took his time in getting the company ready for its big relaunch. By late 2014, a Facebook page and Twitter feed were up. Wegel and his team documented every little step leading towards the launch date. We saw pics of the plane that was going to be the first plane (the Spirit of Eddie Rickenbacher), as it went to Ireland to be painted and prepared. We saw the day it came to Eastern’s Miami headquarters, and the celebration of the airline now being a real thing. We all followed as the sole plane went on test runs for FAA certification and then finally, it was the day in May 2015 of its first paid flight — a Honor Flight from Miami to Washington, DC.

Eastern’s fan page wasn’t great at responding to questions, but they were open to show the progress of the airline, which I should add was operating as a charter airline to begin with and hoping to start passenger service in a year’s time. Most of the people who liked the page would write notes cheering the airline on and wondering when Eastern would come to their hometown. Others talked about a father or mother who worked for the original airline and how good it was to see the airline back and flying.

Things seemed to be going well for Eastern. Maybe it would break the curse of doomed restarts.

And then, in the late summer of 2016, the updates to the Facebook page stopped.

Then, in October 2016, we found out that Ed Wegel had left Eastern. Most people think he was pushed from the position. There was a lot of worry that this might force the demise of this second incarnation of Eastern, and, in the long run, they were correct. It seems that the people who came in to lead the airline were not as knowlegable of the industry as Wegel was and that might have had an impact on the well-being of the airline. All of a sudden, the Facebook page and Twitter feed were updated less frequently. People felt less connected with the happenings of the airline.

Rumors were out there for months that Eastern wasn’t doing well, and was looking for a buyer. In June 2017, we learned that Swift Air, a charter airline based in Phoenix, was going to buy the airline. This wasn’t shared on Eastern’s Facebook page, but it was shared on Swift Air’s page. But no one knew what the message really was here. Some thought Swift would rebrand itself as Eastern. But the announcement from Swift made it sound like they were buying assets (planes), but the name would stay with Eastern.

Swift is not very good at responding to people. Questions have been asked by Eastern fans about what is going to happen, and Swift never responds.

So everything remains in this limbo; no one knows if Eastern 2.0 is kaput or in a holding pattern. Ed Wegel is not in a holding pattern; he has started another aviation concern. While I wish him well in this new endeavor, I personally miss not having him around, and wonder if Eastern would have been in better shape if he wasn’t forced out of his dream.

There are a few things to be learned from Eastern 2.0. The first is to pay attention to the fans. Eastern is an iconic brand that many still remember. There was a lot of interest and hope to see Eastern rise from the ashes. During the Wegel era, there was attention given. It wasn’t perfect, but there was a sense of giving fans on the Facebook page a glimpse into the relaunch of an airline.

But there’s another more important reason to pay attention: those fans were potential customers. I remember seeing a number of people who seemed ready to take the first scheduled flight possible. Wegel understood this, but his successors didn’t. Swift should have also paid attention to the Eastern fans, and tried to answer questions. Again, these were potential customers, but, at least for now, Swift has failed to respond to those wondering if they are taking the Eastern name.

I want to believe that one day “The Wings of ?M?a?n? Humanity” will rise again and I’ll be able to take a flight somewhere on Eastern. I know I’m not the only one. My wish is that Wegel would buy the trademarks again and start anew. I doubt the current team is going to do anything with them, since they couldn’t run an airline.

And Mr. Wegel, if you are out there, thanks for trying to restart a dream.

This was originally posted on Medium. Dennis wrote another story about Eastern’s closure and how it can start again. You can read it here.

Staff Writer

Dennis Sanders is the Associate Pastor at First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Minneapolis, MN.  You can follow Dennis through his blogs, The Clockwork Pastor and Big Tent Revue and on Twitter.  Feel free to contact him at dennis.sanders(at)gmail(dot)com.

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14 thoughts on “Losing Eastern Airlines All Over Again

  1. I wasn’t aware of this restart. Shame that it’s failed.

    Eastern was the first airline I ever flew first class on, something I’ve only done twice. I was 16 or 17 and was flown back with my mom to attend a celebration–it had something to do with an Eastern anniversary, or something associated with the first pilots of the airline. My mom’s father (my grandfather) used to fly with Pitcarin, which became Eastern, and he did so for decades. I still have the picture of all of us, and Frank Borman, who was CEO at the time, at the party.

    During my visits to Miami, where my grandfather had retired, we would often go to a airline memorabilia restaurant. I think it was called “The Spirit”. Think the dinner scene in Pulp Fiction with all the 50’s memorabilia, but it all being airline related–airline seats, etc.

    “It’s 5 o’clock Partner”, he’d call me Partner (I used to help him putter in the garage). “time for a martini”. I suppose that’s why I’m so rigid on how martinis should be made :)


  2. Honestly, I find it kind of odd to get all misty-eyed over an airline, much less over reviving the name of a defunct airline. What is that really worth? OK, some people who disagree with me about airline sentimentality will take a flight for old time’s sake. But that is pretty trivial: not a business model for the long term.


    • Brand loyalty is actually (even now with expedia, travelocity, etc.) still a big deal in the airline biz. Southwest’s focus on customer service is, business-wise, oriented at brand loyalty as the desired outcome. (I did a 30 page research-based analysis on them once, is why I am shifting examples.)

      People really do choose their airline (repeatedly, not just as a one-time thing) based on emotional attachment, and while you can muck that up in a vast number of ways, you can also build it in a number of ways. If you can have that advantage out of the gate, small as it may seem to you, it can be the necessary leverage to break into a tight market.


      • Like , I just don’t get it. Quite likely it’s because I spent too many years taking too many flights where my preference for carrier simply didn’t matter — either my employer had a deal with an airline, or the choice was limited by who serviced the destination, or who had non-stop flights. Those memories pretty much blur together, but it seems to me that all of the carriers did a good job sometimes, and a crappy job other times.

        Of course, I wasn’t ever fond of flying. One of the nice things about retirement is that I don’t have to go bouncing around the sky in a little aluminum tube any more, or sleep in lumpy hotel beds with miserable excuses for pillows, or try to find a place where I can get a reasonable soup, salad and glass of white wine at 9:00 when I’m already exhausted. Just for the record, I put California at the top of the list for finding that sort of meal at that time w/o hassles.


  3. Maribou:
    Hershberger …If you can have that advantage out of the gate, small as it may seem to you, it can be the necessary leverage to break into a tight market.

    Southwest Airlines = non-assigned seats = faster boarding = advatage out of the gate?

    Pun intended?


  4. Flying is a miracle, but the experience pretty uniformly sucks across airlines. I expect next to nothing, and if the plane leaves the ground roughly when it is supposed to and doesn’t hit the ground before it is supposed to, or noticeably faster than it is supposed to, and my baggage arrives on the same flight, I am, if not happy, content.


  5. I just watched a PBS documentary about air travel on netflix called “City in the Sky.” It mostly focused on the biggest and busiest aspects: a lot of time was spent showing Airbus A380’s. It did mention how air travel was expected to grow by quite a bit. I wonder if this will include more new airlines or expansions of the current major airlines. Maybe there was room for Eastern.
    There does seem to be room for different business models–Iceland Air and Norwegian Air seem to be doing okay in the “affordable transatlantic flights” business. I’m excited about Norwegian’s non-stop Denver to Paris that’s supposed to come to DIA in the spring of 2018.


  6. As a California guy, I don’t have many associations with Eastern, other than their president being an astronaut. TWA is an iconic international airline, and PSA the nostalgic local one.


  7. Swift Air is a subsidiary of Swift Transportation, the biggest trucking company in the country. I don’t believe it has ever been much more than a vanity project for the people who founded the company, certainly not a core part of the business.

    So they can buy the service mark and operate as Eastern, but it will in no realistic way actually BE Eastern Airlines. Your love is gone.


  8. Interestingly, I also took my first flight on EAL – NY to MIA – at the age of 5. Even more interesting, I spent a magnificent 25 years as a pilot for EAL. Their demise is no surprise to me. Buying the name does not a great airline make.


  9. Correction: Ed Wegel did not “restart” Eastern Airlines. Instead, he started a brand new airline, with new airplanes, new management, new employees, new routes and even a new concept, but he bought, and used the old Eastern name. I believe new starts Pan Am and National Airlines suffered the similar fates. I do feel sorry for those employees affected by the new Eastern’s demise. However, as a former employee of the old Eastern, I find it a non issue, and have little nostalgia for the new Eastern, but have many fond memories of the Eastern I worked for.


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