Eastern Airlines, which was instrumental in the growth of Florida’s tourism industry and the links the state enjoyed with the northeastern United States has returned to its Miami home almost 24 years after shutting down.
For many years Eastern was the undisputed leader in flights to Florida. Then following Atlanta-based Delta’s merger with Northeast Airlines in 1972, a robust and intense competition between Eastern and Delta broke out.
Delta, based in Atlanta and Eastern which moved its headquarters from New York to Miami in 1975 had route systems that were largely identical. 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.
The new Eastern will likely eschew the intense competition in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale and Tampa despite historical links to all three airports. Instead the new Eastern which will initially fly charter flights looks ready to set up shop at Miami International Airport where they could provide competition for American Airlines who has created a “fortress” hub operation at the airport.
For many Florida natives and those who grew up in the state, seeing the Eastern colors again on a plane brings back great memories of the past which were perhaps better days in this state.