Eastern struggled through the deregulation era, even prior to the Lorenzo led Texas Air takeover, however one of the few bright spots for EAL was the acquisition of the new Boeing 757-200, which proved itself a fine acquisition to the fleet right up until the airline’s final closure. Even so, despite the need for the type the introduction of the 757s coincided with the period that marked the beginning of the end of the 'Great Silver Fleet'.
Despite constant losses through the early 1970s Eastern was still one of the largest airline’s in the world and, since late 1975, under the stern, but sensible, stewardship of former astronaut Frank Borman it was actually starting to turn itself around. It is hard to imagine, given his later rancor with unions, but initially Borman’s level-headed get it done attitude seemed to go down well with staff.
Borman made significant cuts in middle management positions, reducing them by 800 and cutting vice presidents from 69 to 38 by the end of 1977. He communicated directly with staff, to reassure them on his plans and actions, through the airline newspaper ‘The Falcon’. The immediate impact of his first few years actually enabled Borman to personally win over the leader of the Transport Workers Union (representing flight attendants) and the IAM (which represented the largest contingent of unionised employees).
The acceptance of a wage freeze was one of the reasons Eastern was able to make a profit in 1976 ($39.1 million – the highest in the airline’s history). He was even able to introduce a Variable Earnings Plan (VEP), which was a form of profit and deficit sharing scheme whereby a portion of employees salaries was held back to make up for any losses. Likewise if profits were made the staff would receive more than the original held back portion. The profits kept on coming in and in 1978 the airline made a record $67.3 million.
In hindsight it is obvious that Eastern’s systematic issues weren’t really resolved (even Pan Am was making money in 1978) and that faced with deregulation’s challenges Borman’s brusque, to the point, manner would most likely rile the unions up. Nonetheless Eastern had some breathing space and needed to look at its future fleet needs since its fleet had a large number of older DC-9s and 727s.
Eastern was still short of cash but could at least afford to shop around, and the excellent deal for Airbus A300s, achieved in 1977 and bolstered in 1978, was a godsend for the airline. Even so the A300 was still not the full answer to the issues that Eastern had. The A300s enabled Eastern to replace 727-200s on higher density routes, that didn’t need a Tristar, but there was still a sizeable gap between the two types, which fortunately was compensated for initially by the sweet nature of the deal with Airbus.
Eastern had always been keen on Boeing’s 7N7, but in early 1977 the type was simply too far away from production to meet Eastern’s needs. Designs had gone far enough that on August 31, 1978 Eastern and British Airways were willing to place launch orders, for 21 and 19 respectively, of the series 200 version, soon renamed as the 757. Eastern had only signed its full deal for the A300s five months earlier but recognised that the 174 seat 757-200 was a more attractive size as a 727 replacement, plus of course it was American made (although Eastern chose the Rolls Royce engine option).
Eastern’s total purchase was in fact 21 orders and 24 options and cost it around $560 million. The plan was to use the new Boeings to replace 727s and DC-9s, but obviously being the launch customer deliveries were not planned for another 5 years. As a stopgap Eastern ordered 8 additional 727-200 Advanceds. In fact, 727-200 deliveries had restarted in late 1976 (after a three-and-a-half-year lull) and 23 were delivered to Eastern between then and the last arriving in December 1979.
It was no real surprise that Eastern struggled in the deregulated era, especially when that was mixed with economic recession. By 1983 the airline was in serious trouble and the VEP plan, which had worked so well early on, had been relabelled by hostile employees as the ‘veritable extortion plan’. New York Air and PeoplExpress were cutting into Eastern’s markets and doing so flying old gas guzzling DC-9s and 737s.
The ultimate irony for Borman was that he was just about to receive his new fuel efficient 757s at a time when fuel economy no longer mattered, whilst their larger size, which had been an asset in the 70s, was now somewhat a hindrance against smaller jets, which could compete with higher frequencies. Even worse in 1983 Borman had failed to break the machinist’s union led by the irascible Charlie Bryan. In fact, he was forced to cave in and agree to their demands just at the time Eastern could not afford to.
Despite this turmoil Eastern put a brave face on it’s new 757s. Frank Borman’s wife had actually been involved in examining cabin mockups for the new aircraft and selecting the décor. The final selection was earth tones and striped seats with patterns that change subtly as you moved through the plane.
Eastern also modified the external appearance of its new 757s, although it did so quite late in the day. The prototype aircraft carried huge 757 letting on the tail and in November 1982 when the Eastern board and Boeing officials were travelling back from Buenos Aires to Miami on one of the prototypes the aircraft stopped for refuelling in Panama. When they deplaned someone asked why Eastern didn’t keep the numbers and it was quickly agreed that Eastern would do so for the first few years.
Below: The original 757 scheme had large tail titles, the thin cheatlines under the windowline and the Caribbean blue carrying through onto the radome:
Below: Towards the end of their careers with Eastern the 757s were painted into the last livery variant of the hockeystick. Losing their distinctive tail titles, with thicker cheatlines and with the Ionosphere blue covering the entire radome:
The qualities of the 757 would prove themselves over time especially towards the end of Eastern’s life when much of the fleet was decrepit and many of the A300s had been switched over to Continental. Unfortunately, they only saw three years of service with Borman’s Eastern before the mania of the Texas Air takeover struck Eastern.
Eastern would eventually take 25 frames with the last joining the fleet on December 19, 1986. A further pair of aircraft were built for Eastern but not taken up. One joined the Mexican Air Force whilst the other was delivered to America West. Rolls-Royce had refined their initial RB-211-535C engine to compete better against Pratt & Whitney’s PW2037 creating the RB-211-535-E4. This gave increased thrust at take-off and an 8% reduction in fuel burn. Eastern naturally switched its 757s to the new engine type and received its first E4 equipped aircraft on October 10, 1984 (N518EA). Older members of the fleet were subsequently refitted with the new engines.
The E4 equipped Eastern 757s were certified for overwater operations in January 1987 and used on the Miami and San Juan based South American network until its sale to American Airlines. Such routes as MIA-SJU,MIA-BOG,SJU-EWR,SJU-ATL,EWR-PSE,MIA-PTY utilised the 757s. Although the Latin American network was sold to American none of the 757s were included in the purchase as they were seen as key to bolstering the remaining Atlanta hub. The three newest aircraft were the only ones to be sold, no doubt a reflection of Eastern's dire financial situation.
Until the end the 757s were the pride of the fleet and as late as 1990 the remaining 22 757s were updated with new blue and grey leather first class cabins for 24-28 passengers. Unfortunately plans to similarly upgrade the economy class cabins were not implemented prior to the bankruptcy.
After the collapse of Eastern the 757s were snapped up by a variety of operators even though they were apparently not in the best condition. In the USA USAir acquired 11 and America West 3. The 757 was always popular with charter airlines and 4 joined Airtours (1 saw service with MGM Grand Air first), 3 joined Air 2000 and a pair joined LTE of Spain. One other aircraft joined Nationair and was written off in 1996 operating with the Turkish charter airline Birgenair.
Rather fittingly, considering Borman’s history as an Astronaut, the first registered Eastern 757 N501EA joined NASA in December 1994 as N557NA and wore the basic Eastern colours for many years. The majority of the fleet had a long service career and a few are still in service today.
Serling, R.J. From the Captain to the Colonel – An Informal History of Eastern Air Lines
Petzinger, T. Hard Landing: The Epic Contest for Power and Profits that Plunged the Airlines into Chaos
1983. Making it Fly: the Boeing 757. Seattle Times
1998. Eastern 757s. Airliners.net
2015. Friday Flashback: the Boeing 757. Airways.
Boeing: Plane Makers of Distinction.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: