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.
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.