December 1985: Delta vs Eastern in Florida

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While we’ve told the story of Pan Am and National previously on this blog, Florida had two airlines that competed hard and dominated the aviation landscape of the state from the 1950s until the late 1980s. Those two airlines were Delta, based in Atlanta and Eastern which moved its headquarters from New York to Miami in 1975. Both airlines competed vigorously on routes to/from the Sunshine State and both competed in Atlanta, the largest hub for both airlines, and up the Eastern seaboard. In 1980 Eastern was the largest airline in the western world, eclipsed worldwide only by Soviet state owned carrier Aeroflot. But by 1985, Eastern was only slightly bigger than Delta, a traditional cautious and conservative southern airline that had focused on customer service. Eastern’s reputation for poor customer service and constant labor strife led the airline into decline. By 1989, Eastern had slipped to the seventh largest US Airline (Delta was 3rd by this time) and after a debilitating strike began in March 1989, Eastern sunk into bankruptcy and collapsed in January 1991. Delta on the other hand became the world’s biggest airline after buying Northwest in 2008, jumping over American, Lufthansa, United, Southwest and Air France-KLM into first place. but was passed by United in 2011.

Delta has since 2007 scaled back its Florida operation dramatically thanks to intense low-far competition on it’s bread and butter Florida routes with JetBlue and Southwest. Delta even tried an “Airline within an Airline” concept twice- first in the mid 1990s after Southwest invaded the state with Delta Express an Orlando based leisure carrier that offered one class of service and also had large operations in Fort Lauderdale and Tampa/St Pete. Delta Express copied Southwest service and crew behavior but ultimately flopped.  Then Delta tried an outfit called “Song” which mimicked JetBlue and flew the same exact routes JetBlue did from Florida cities. The result was Delta being chased off all routings from Boston to Florida (where the carrier had dominated since the early 1970s), as well as discontinuing most service from first-tier Midwestern cities, Newark, Philadelphia and Washington to Florida. Today, JetBlue is the number one carrier in Fort Lauderdale (where it is building an impressive international operation) and number two in Orlando. Southwest is number one in Orlando and Tampa. Delta which was the largest airline in Orlando from 1987 until 2007, in Fort Lauderdale from 1982 until 2005 and Tampa from 1985 until 2004 is now third or lower in each of those airports.

In December 1985 Delta and Eastern were at virtual parity in Florida. Both airline timetables featured Florida on the front cover. Below is a snapshot of nonstop destinations served by each from its Florida cities.

Daytona Beach

Delta

Atlanta

Eastern

Atlanta

Jacksonville

Fort Lauderdale

Delta

Atlanta

Baltimore

Boston

Chicago – O’Hare

Cincinnati

Dallas/Fort Worth

Detroit

Hartford/Springfield

Miami

Nassau

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

New York – Kennedy

Philadelphia

Tampa/St Pete

Eastern

Atlanta

Baltimore

Boston

Hartford/Springfield

Islip

Miami

Nassau

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

New York – Kennedy

Philadephia

Pittsburgh

Tampa/St Pete

Washington-National

West Palm Beach

Fort Myers

Delta

Atlanta

Eastern

Atlanta

Chicago-O’Hare

New York- Kennedy

Sarasota/Bradenton

Tampa/St Pete

Gainesville

Delta

No service

Eastern

Atlanta

Miami

Jacksonville

Delta

Atlanta

Dallas/Fort Worth

Eastern

Atlanta

Charlotte

Key West

Delta

No service

Eastern

Miami

Melbourne

Delta

Atlanta

Eastern

Atlanta

Miami

New York – LaGuardia

Miami

Delta

Atlanta

Boston

Chicago – O’Hare

Cincinnati

Fort Lauderdale

Memphis

Montreal

Philadelphia

Eastern (Hub operation)

Antigua

Aruba

Atlanta

Baltimore

Barbados

Barranquilla

Bogota

Boston

Buenos Aires

Cali

Charlotte

Chicago-O’Hare

Cleveland

Dallas/Fort Worth

Detroit

Fort Lauderdale

Freeport

Gainesville

Guatemala City

Guayaquil

Hartford/Springfield

Houston-Intercontinental

Jacksonville

Key West

Kingston

London-Gatwick

Los Angeles

Montego Bay

Nassau

New Orleans

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

New York – Kennedy

Panama City, Panama

Philadelphia

Pittsburgh

Raleigh/Durham

Port Au Prince

St Criox

St Louis

St Maarten

St Thomas

San Francisco

San Jose, Costa Rica

San Juan

Tampa/St Pete

Toronto

Washington-Dulles

Washington-National

West Palm Beach

Orlando

Delta

Atlanta

Baltimore

Boston

Chicago – O’Hare

Cincinnati

Dallas/Fort Worth

Detroit

Hartford/Springfield

New Orleans

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

New York – Kennedy

West Palm Beach

Eastern

Atlanta

Baltimore

Boston

Hartford/Springfield

Houston- Intercontinental

Islip

Miami

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

New York – Kennedy

Philadelphia

Pittsburgh

Tallahassee

Tampa/St Pete

Washington-National

West Palm Beach

Pensacola

Delta

Atlanta

Dallas/Fort Worth

Mobile

Eastern

Atlanta

Tampa/St Pete

Sarasota/Bradenton

Delta

Atlanta

Eastern

Atlanta

Chicago-O’Hare

Fort Myers

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

New York – Kennedy

Tallahassee

Delta

Atlanta

Eastern

Atlanta

Orlando

Tampa/St Pete

Tampa/St Pete

Delta

Atlanta

Baltimore

Boston

Chicago – O’Hare

Cincinnati

Dallas/Fort Worth

Detroit

Hartford/Springfield

Memphis

New Orleans

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

Philadelphia

Eastern

Atlanta

Boston

Fort Lauderdale

Fort Myers

Hartford/Springfield

Miami

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

New York – Kennedy

Orlando

Pensacola

Philadelphia

Tallahassee

Sarasota/Bradenton

Washington-National

West Palm Beach

West Palm Beach

Delta

Atlanta

Boston

Chicago – O’Hare

Dallas/Fort Worth

Detroit

Hartford/Springfield

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

Philadelphia

Tampa/St Pete

Eastern

Atlanta

Boston

Hartford/Springfield

Miami

Newark

New York – LaGuardia

New York – Kennedy

Philadephia

Tampa/St Pete

NOTES

While Eastern flew to more destinations from Florida cities, Delta generally had higher frequency flights.

Delta and Eastern both had affiliated commuter service to Fort Walton Beach and Panama City and Delta has affiliated commuter service to Gainesville (A city served by Eastern). Eastern had commuter service to Marathon, Naples and Punta Gorda.

6 comments

  1. You left out the part about how Frank Lorenzo sold off all the profitable parts of Eastern Airlines leaving it a shell of its former self.

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    1. I’ve talked about Lorenzo in previous pieces extensively…we credit him with being the biggst union-buster and job-killer in the history of the state!

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  2. palm beach dem · · Reply

    Eastern is an example of a successful be destroyed by management was too busy trying to bust unions. The biggest corporate bankruptcy in Florida’s history. Also the move from New York was the beginning of trying to bust the unions. Florida is a right to work state don’t forget.

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  3. I enjoyed the article but I feel that it is an overly simplistic view of a very complex industry failure. I loved Eastern Airlines and as someone who directly benefited from it’s success it is painful to reflect on what really destroyed it. This was NOT entirely the despicable Frank Lorenzo’s fault but there was a “perfect storm” of other significant factors that led to Eastern’s demise. Eastern had a constantly changing revolving door of incompetent corporate management that amounted to HORRIBLE mismanagement. This was also a period of disastrous government regulatory policies IE:”airline deregulation”, Union greed, and a changing marketplace that had consumers opting for flights on so called “discount airlines” that still continues today. Unfortunately Eastern was only one of many airline failures during this turbulent period notable examples include Pan Am, TWA, National, and Braniff. Over forty years later the airline industry continues to struggle towards maintaining profitability.

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  4. Frank Lorenzo got a bad wrap…union problems and Eastern’s trouble began long before him. The network was too based around seasonal travel and the northeast corridor.

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  5. Lorenzo wasn’t to blame. The Unions were unreasonable. I tend to be pro-Labor but in Eastern’s case, Labor was making money hand over fist and management was being exploited. The airline was losing money and yet the unions wouldn’t take a pay cut or share the sacrifice. The end result was the largest collapse of a company based in this state.

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