By the 1970s it had been years since the US majors had bought any foreign aircraft and the new Airbus consortium was struggling to sell its A300 to anybody, let alone the Americans. Eastern, cash-strapped and inefficient, needed a new aircraft and it was Frank Borman's airline that would give Airbus the opportunity that perhaps more than any allowed it to be taken seriously on the world stage.
Eastern was an airline in almost continuous crisis from the 1960s onwards. In 1977, despite improvement under Frank Borman's tenure, it still had over $900 million in debts. This, however, didn't mean fleet replacement could be put on the backburner, as Eastern's large 727 fleet was rapidly aging. By 1984 25 of its 727-100s would be 20 years old with another 20 reaching that age two years later and the rest by 1988. These represented about a quarter of the airline's fleet. In addition Eastern's fuel charges had risen from $112 million in 1973 to $375 million in 1977. By the mid-70s the 727-100 fleet was inefficient compared to larger series 200s and the airline's 25 727-100QCs almost worthless - as the extra weight of the cargo door meant they needed a 107% load factor to break even!
In 1977 what Eastern needed was a new fuel efficient jet that could replace the capacity of the DC-9s and 727-100s but in smaller numbers. The plane needed to be a twin engine type between the size of the Tristars and 727-200s but still capable of operating out of short runway airports like La Guardia and Washington National with a New York - Miami range capability. Delivery was required for 1980. McDonnell Douglas offered their MD-80, Boeing their 757 and 767 and Lockheed a smaller version of the Tristar. None of these US types however met all the criteria. The 757 seemed perfect but wouldn't be ready in time.
Eastern somewhat reluctantly began to look overseas and met with the fledgling Airbus Industrie, which had been struggling to place its A300s for several years. The A300 was too big for Eastern but Airbus was willing to compromise and effectively agreed to charge Eastern for the 170 seater they wanted rather than the 250 seater they would get. Down the line if traffic grew Eastern would pay additional sums for the aircraft. Knowing that Airbus was desperate to break into the US market Airbus even agreed to let Eastern test the A300 out.
Eastern wanted to test out 4 A300s for 6 months at no charge. Eastern sold this as free advertising and though Airbus was initially sceptical George Warde, head of its US Sales department, saw the benefit. Agreement was reached in August 1977 and training in France for Eastern crews began in November. Only one month later on December 13, 1977 the first Eastern A300 started operations.
The A300 was a great success in its trial period, except for a small amount of reaction towards Eastern being 'unpatriotic'. The plane scored well across the board and showed significant fuel savings compared to the L-1011s and 727s. One of the few problems encountered was that the signs to the restrooms said "TOILET" rather than the Americanised "LAVATORY"! Internally some at Eastern still wavered but not the man in charge Frank Borman. Negotiatons began only 3 months after service entry for a permanent deal.
Borman was able to say that if there was an aircraft as good in the USA he'd buy it, knowing that for Eastern's needs there was not. Boeing was no doubt suitably chided but would get its 757 deal only 5 months later. The A300s served Eastern very well. They were registered from N201EA-235EA (with 211, 214, 218, missing) plus a pair of B2K-203s (N291-292EA).
The below video features Frank Borman and the A300s he has bought:
In the end Eastern actually bought 34 aircraft. The A300s were initially delivered in a white version of the classic hockeystick even though all of Easterns fleet had changed to silver by then. From around 1984 some of Eastern's A300s took up a grey painted version of the Hockeystick with the cheatlines lowered to under the windowline. The A300s were used on major trunk routes and even found themselves on the Eastern Shuttle services, especially after the introduction of the 'Air Shuttle Plus' in reaction to the new Pan Am Shuttle.
As Eastern's problems mounted following the Lorenzo takeover several of the A300s were sold. In fact the Eastern A300s were part of the asset stripping that Lorenzo's Texas Air Corp undertook with many ending up at sister airline Continental under dubious circumstances. Six were also sold and moved quickly to Alitalia in late 1988. By the time of Eastern's demise only 13 of the 34 aircraft remained. Seventeen of the fleet would eventually service with Continental, several picked up following Eastern's failure.
The A300 proved itself an excellent aircraft for the needs of Eastern and its acquisition was both a coup for Borman's Eastern and a real shot in the arm for Airbus Industries.
1980. Serling, R.J. From the Captain to the Colonel
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: