Resurrecting Eastern Airlines Belongs in the “Awful Idea” Hall of Fame

The rumors are flying that a plan to bring the Eastern Airlines name back is under way. This is easily one of the worst ideas I’ve seen in a long time. Bringing back a defunct airline’s name has rarely been a Bringing Eastern Back to Lifesuccessful move for airlines in the past, and the fact that Eastern had a pretty awful reputation among customers makes this even worse. Why the heck would you want that baggage?

Quick, what do you think of when you think of Eastern? Chance are it’s not good. Maybe one of the airline’s high-profile accounts sticks out for you? The one that comes to mind for me is Eastern 401. That’s the one where the pilots plowed into the Everglades after getting distracted by a landing gear issue.

But even more likely is that you think of a bad airline with horrendous labor relations, poor service, and really, not much good at all. The story of Eastern’s disastrous labor relations are legendary. The standoffs between Charlie Bryan and the final two CEO’s of the airline, Frank Borman and then Frank Lorenzo, were full of animosity and eventually, failed brinkmanship. Though they all lost in the end, in the meantime, the passengers suffered terribly.

But don’t think this was just a decline at the end of the airline’s life. Eastern was never known for its stellar service. This was an airline that was often known for making bad decisions under its first true leader, Eddie Rickenbacker, and I imagine that very few, other than employees or those with rose-colored glasses, will have fond memories. (Yes, I’m sure I’ll hear about it in the comments.) So why the heck would someone want to resurrect this name?

Well, Ed Wegel, the man trying to bring Eastern back, says that the plan “leverages off of Eastern’s core strengths while using all of the lessons we have learned from all of the start up airlines and the restructuring of all of the legacy carriers over the past 18 years.” Hmm, I can’t really think of many core strengths of Eastern’s except for maybe cost control efforts. Rickenbacker was a known tightwad, so in that sense, he was ahead of his time. Maybe this will be a Skybus clone.

A look at much of Ed Wegel’s bio is like walking through a cemetery. True, he left most of these companies long before they failed, but it’s still a depressing list.

  • CEO, SunTrips (hired 2005) – Shut down 2006
  • President, BWIA (1994-1996) – Airline shut down and replaced with Caribbean Airlines in 2007
  • SVP, Atlantic Coast Airlines (1991-1996) – Became Independence Air in 2004 and quickly failed
  • AVP, Shearson Lehman (1987-1991) – Went bankrupt in 2008
  • Manager, Pan American World Airways (1985-1988) – Shut down in 1991
  • Manager, Eastern Airlines (1985-1987) – Shut down in 1991

It hasn’t been all gloom and doom. He did work with both Chautauqua and Mesa during the 1990s and they’re both still around (though with a four cent share price, the latter is treading on thin ice).

But let’s get back to the point. Eastern does not invoke the same fuzzy, happy memories that other airline names like Piedmont may bring. But I wouldn’t even bring back a name like Piedmont’s. All you’re doing is setting expectations for something that probably won’t be matched.

And do I even need to discuss the ridiculousness of starting an airline at all right now? I think not.

If you’d like to learn more about the nasty history of Eastern Airlines, there are plenty of books around. The latter years are covered very well in the industry bible, Hard Landing. But you don’t need a book to get a good idea. Even this short article in Time magazine will give you enough background to know that there is no point is bringing this airline back to life.

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