The original Eastern Air Lines holds a special place in the hearts of those who’ve worked, flown or been a part of the Miami carrier over its history from 1926 to 1991. For a younger generation, though, Eastern doesn’t resonate.
Roland Moore, a former contracts lawyer who worked at Eastern from the 1960s until 1991 remembers walking down a Southwest Airlines jetway two years ago when he saw an Eastern lapel pin on the captain flying the plane he was about to embark on. Moore asked the pilot if he flew for Eastern, who said the pin originally belonged to his father.A young flight attendant nearby then said she never heard of Eastern. “We both looked at her and asked how old are you?” Moore said. After replying she was 21, they both laughed and exclaimed, well Eastern did end 25 years ago.
Eastern was founded by celebrated World War I pilot Eddie Rickenbacker, whom Miami’s Rickenbacker Causeway is named after. The airline began as a mail carrier based in New York City and over the years was one of the first airlines to promote tourism in Florida.
“Well, first of all Eastern and Pan American created Miami as a tourist destination,” Moore said. “Eddie built this huge red sign on the Hudson Palisades in New York City which read, ‘Come to Miami, the best tourist destination in the winter!’ So Eastern really promoted Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. We were the No. 1 airline there from probably the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s.”
Michael Zall worked in the airline’s maintenance department from 1979 to 1991 and after all these years he recognizes the nostalgia many still feel for Eastern.
“I believe people still feel like it’s family and they feel like there’s a belonging,” Zall said. “It had a big impact on a lot of people and there was just a lot of great people working there. I just believe it was a great camaraderie everyone had there.”
For other former employees such as Moore and Donna Cole, Eastern helped them get their college degrees while they worked at the company.
Cole worked at Eastern for 38 years in operations, starting as a 17-year-old, but still remembers her early days when Eastern helped pay her college tuition as long as she maintained a “B” average.
“Eastern was my livelihood for such a long time,” Cole said. “I had friends who worked at Eastern for 20 years and after it ended, worked at American for another 20 years before retiring. They told me you just don’t have the same feel as you did with Eastern. It’s something you can’t describe.”
For Moore, Eastern gave him the opportunity to work part-time while he got his degree. The airline even paid for a portion of his tuition at University of Miami Law and Business school.
“Paying for tuition is something that simply doesn’t happen today,” Moore said. “I was eternally grateful and is one of the reasons why I worked at Eastern for some 30 years. It was my career and I loved it.”
Eastern peaked from the 1950s through ‘70s, transporting passengers around the globe during a period many call “the glory days” of flying, Moore said.
During this time, flying was a luxury and not nearly the chore it is today. There were prepared meals from local chefs with a full menu, reclining seats and leg room that would make many of today’s travelers jealous.
“Some of the [airline’s] 747 airplanes introduced to us even had a grand piano and a bar,” Moore said. “It was really a different age.”
Female flight attendants (then referred to as stewardesses) were even required to retain certain measurements on Eastern. For example, flight attendants who were five-feet four-inches tall were required to have a maximum weight of 123 pounds.
“In the early days to be a flight attendant or stewardess it was a very prestigious job,” Moore said. “It was probably harder to be a flight attendant than get into Harvard Law School. They selected one out of 10 applicants who had to be stunning and wear a size four dress. They took great pride in their work.”
Eastern flight attendants called themselves the Silverliners, a group that in its heyday had about 4,000 members. Many are still active today.
Moore says it was also a very different customer base back in the day. Male passengers weren’t allowed to fly unless they had on coats and ties. Also, the cost for flying was much higher.
“Today you can fly from New York to Miami for around $100,” Moore says. “Back then, the airfare was $150 and those were in 1960s’ dollars.”
Eastern’s glory days eventually faded. On Dec. 29, 1972, the airline’s Flight 401 from New York’s JFK Airport to Miami crashed in the Everglades, killing 101 passengers and crew. There were 75 survivors.
In the 1980s, Eastern buckled in large part to airline deregulation and labor disputes under then-company President Frank Borman, the former astronaut.
Michael Zall recalls how he learned of Eastern’s demise from his manager: “In 1991, I wrote up my manager for doing something illegal in aircraft overhaul and presented him a letter of reprimand,” Zall said. “He threw it in the air and said, ‘Didn’t your manager tell you? We’re out of business.’”
Six years ago, Eastern made a comeback, of sorts, based in Miami with charter flights to Cuba, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Guyana and Haiti.
“In late 2011, a professional group of airline managers acquired the intellectual property of Eastern Air Lines,” according to the revived Eastern’s website. “They did this with the goal of developing a new business and financing plan for relaunching the airline. The result was the formation of Eastern Air Lines Group, Inc.”
Eastern’s legacy also lives on through the retiree association — fittingly located next to Miami International Airport — which sends out monthly newsletters to each of its 7,400 members.
This association chose to donate the archive to UM, which also holds the old Pan American World Airways collection, because many wanted the Eastern legacy to remain in the Miami area.
“I was thrilled because I wanted our collection to stay in Florida. It was where the majority of our employees lived and our headquarters was based there,” Moore said. “I had calls from Purdue, Illinois, Auburn and Texas A&M universities as well as the Smithsonian about wanting the collection, but I knew the right place for Eastern’s history was here in Florida.”