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Eastern Air Lines returns to P.R. for historic trip

A classic DC-7B like the one pictured above will arrive at LMM Monday.

For a few hours on Monday, the Luis Muñoz Marín Airport will go back in time to an era when flying meant that passengers would dress up for their journey and flight attendants would pass out playing cards and pillows for the trip.

That day, at 11:45 a.m., the last remaining DC-7B aircraft belonging to Eastern Air Lines’ original 1958 fleet will land at the airport it once served, hosted by government officials and members of the Puerto Rico Chapter of the Eastern Airlines Employees Association.

In an unprecedented act, the once beloved airline will revisit its operations at LMM to promote appreciation of the aviation industry history through the presentation of the only passenger aircraft still flying from the original fleet. The aircraft will transport 60 passengers from Miami, Port Authority officials said.

Among those that will be on hand to witness the arrival are Secretary of State Kenneth McClintock, Port Authority Executive Director Alberto Escudero and Rubén Pérez, head of the former employees association.

Remembering a time when flying was a luxury
Eastern Air Lines was a major U.S. carrier that operated from 1926 to 1991, out of the Miami International Airport. Its corporate history was rich, as it included distinguished pilots — World War I flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker purchased the company in 1938 — and the distinction of being the most profitable airline in the post-war era.

Its internationalization began in the early 1980s, when Eastern opened routes to new markets such as Santo Domingo and Nassau, Bahamas. The company inaugurated its Caribbean hub at LMM in 1980, where it flew a healthy business, especially to cities such as New York, Orlando and Miami.

Eastern’s involvement with Puerto Rico was not limited to the Carolina airport, however. In the late 1980s the carrier spread its wings to Mayagüez, under the Eastern Metro Express service, which also served the Borinquen airport in Aguadilla. For that service, the company used smaller aircraft, de Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters.

But despite its reach and reputation for high quality service and its rank of highly experienced pilots, Eastern began losing money in the late 1980s, as it faced competition from no-frills carriers, which offered drastically reduced fares. In 1986, the company was sold to Texas Air, who had already bought Continental a few years prior.

Although the company’s owner Frank Lorenzo was initially perceived as a savior for the airline, the opposite proved true in the end after thousands of employees were laid off, pay cuts were implemented for those remaining, and service was reduced to only a handful of airports in an effort to improve Eastern’s financial position.

A company-wide employee strike that virtually shut down the operation soon followed, Lorenzo began selling off Eastern in pieces. However, it was not enough to prevent a bankruptcy filing in March 1989.

“This gave Lorenzo breathing room, and allowed him to continue operating the airline with non-union employees. When control of the airline was taken away from Lorenzo by the courts and given to Marty Shugrue, it continued operations in an attempt to correct its cash flow, but to no avail,” according to information posted in Wikipedia.

Eastern made its final flight at midnight, Jan. 19, 1991, a decision the company’s Miami-Dade executives apparently did not convey to its employees who continued to take reservations until the last minute. Some 18,000 people lost their jobs.

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Author Details
Author Details
Business reporter with 29 years of experience writing for weekly and daily newspapers, as well as trade publications in Puerto Rico. My list of former employers includes Caribbean Business, The San Juan Star, and the Puerto Rico Daily Sun, among others. My areas of expertise include telecommunications, technology, retail, agriculture, tourism, banking and most other segments of Puerto Rico’s economy.

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