Eastern Airlines

by John Delach

My first business flight was a day trip between LaGuardia Airport and Norfolk, Virginia via Piedmont Airlines in March of 1973. My last, a farewell trip to London on United Airlines in March of 2000, days before I retired. Between those two round-trip flights I logged 355 trips courtesy of Marsh & McLennan in what was then still the golden age of flying.


I flew on Eastern Airlines most of the time because they had the best service to many of the places I flew on business; Boston, DC, Richmond, Miami, Bermuda, San Juan, Mobile, Houston and Corpus Christi. Eastern became my airline of record and the first airline club I joined was their Ionosphere Club. They also provided my entry into the world of frequent flyer perks. Eastern may not have been the first carrier to offer bonuses to valued customers, but they were on the cutting edge. They christened their original program the Executive Traveler Club, (ET Club.) My colleague, Steve Beslity, put me on to it and gave me a copy of the application. “To be honest, John, they are limiting the number of travelers they accept.”


Undaunted, I submitted it and, by return mail, I magically received my ET Card and Luggage Tag. Oh, happy days, I still have that gold on brown ET Card with my number: ET51668. This card together with my membership in the Ionosphere Club threw open the door to frequent upgrades to First Class. No wonder why I went out of my way to fly Eastern.


I flew enough morning flights out of JFK to befriend the woman who ran the front desk at that Ionosphere Club. Her name was Helen and she was magical. She even upgraded Mary Ann to first class on a flight to West Palm Beach when Mary Ann and I were flying separately.  I had left two days earlier to attend our Managing Director’s meeting held that year at the Breakers Hotel and Mary Ann would join me for a post-conference Florida vacation.


That would turn out to be a tumultuous conference because the very day I left, news of a bond trading scandal involving our firm broke in the morning papers. I had The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal with me as I boarded the airplane. Helen had upgraded me to First Class on one of their Lockheed L-1011s. Heading to my seat, I noticed a chap sitting near me. He was reading information about our conference, so I asked, “What do you think of the bond scandal?”


“Pardon,” he replied with a heavy French accent. Instead of replying, I handed him the Times Business Section. Marsh &McLennan’s name was plastered across the front page as our bond scandal was the lead story. He looked down at the piece, looked up at me, looked down again and finally looked me in the eye and said, “Sacrebleu!”


His name was Raymond Jutheau, son of the president of a major French insurance broker that Marsh had recently purchased. He had just arrived at JFK on the daily Air France Concorde to attend his first Marsh conference and he hadn’t seen a newspaper since he left Paris. The price of our stock was tanking. Much of the purchase price was paid in Marsh stock making his family the largest shareholders in our firm: Sacrebleu, indeed!


Looking back at my flying career, if Eastern was my airline of record, my airplane of record was Boeing’s 727. Over the course of my career, I flew in a 727on 239 occasions. The DC-9 / MD-80 finished a distant second with 107 flights. Eastern used the 727 extensively as that three engine Boeing jet became the first domestic workhorse that opened almost all of America to jet travel. My colleague, Norb Forrester, once called it “the Pacific locomotive” of the airlines.


The party ended once the FAA de-regulated the airline industry. Eastern and other so called, “legacy carriers,” like Pan Am and TWA couldn’t compete in a free market. They were too slow to adjust to this brave new world and operated with many uncompetitive practices. Eastern’s flight network, constructed under tight FAA rules included several money-losing routes. So too, their pension obligations, union work rules and pay scales made them a weak sister to Delta, their principal domestic competitor. Eastern’s management exacerbated their problems by making several bad business decisions. I have said this before, their CEO, former astronaut, Frank Borman, didn’t help. As Eastern waivered and declined I offered my own explanation: “Eastern’s CEO is Frank Borman. The way he operates the airline, you’d think he was (Hitler’s private secretary) Martin Bormann.”


Using this carrier became a chore and I last flew on Eastern Airlines in 1987. I was prompted to abandon the Ionosphere Club and my remaining frequent flyer miles in part because the FAA slapped the airline with a $9.5 million fine for safety violations, an amount that wasn’t surpassed until 2010. Their service too, had deteriorated to a point just short of being antagonistic. Cabin crews were definitely in an, “I don’t give a s*** mode.


Borman sold Eastern to Texas Air who also bought Continental. Frank Lorenzo the new CEO didn’t try to save Eastern and cannibalized it by selling off profitable operations.   What was left of Eastern gave up the ghost at midnight on January 19, 1991.


American became my domestic carrier of choice and when they bought TWA’s overseas routes, American became my first choice for flights to Europe, especially London and Paris. I even joined American’s Admirals Club. Their service was a definite improvement, yet it too was declining.


The last time I traveled in a 727 was on a round trip Delta shuttle flight between LGA and DC in 1999. By then this jet had been relegated to the Boston and DC shuttles. Delta had the distinction of retiring the last 727 still operating in domestic scheduled passenger service in April of 2003.


What remained of the joy of flight disappeared after 9/11 as security regulations, shoddy service, cramped cabins and endless add-ons crushed it. Once a romantic adventure, flying became a bad experience to be avoided whenever possible.