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Eastern Air Lines Is Staging a Comeback After 25 Years on the Ground

The legacy carrier has a new fleet and big plans

Thursday, May 29, 2015 was an ordinary day at Miami International Airport, except for Flight 3145. After the Boeing 737-800 lifted off, flight attendants began serving soft drinks and plantain chips. The plane's destination, 42 minutes away, was Havana, Cuba. Surprising? So was the carrier. It was Eastern Air Lines.

Rickenbacker: FPG/Getty Images; Trimotor: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

If the name doesn't sound familiar, it's little wonder. Eastern Air Lines hasn't had a plane in the sky since 1991 when financial and competitive pressures from a 1989 bankruptcy grounded it. But with twice-daily flights now operating between Miami and Havana, and other Latin American destinations in its sights, Eastern is poised to be a rarity in the skies: a legacy carrier that got its clipped wings back.

Right now, the fledgling Eastern is operating as a charter carrier under the auspices of Havana Air. But it's quietly been assembling planes and crew and, assuming it gets the FAA's final nod, could begin scheduled operations as early as this summer.

"They stand to make a fortune," said Bernie Leighton, managing correspondent of AirlineReporter.com. "Eastern will revive the Eastern of yore, but in a more focused and more manageable growth pattern." That'll be key, given what happened to the original Eastern, which started flying in 1930. It was the first airline to adopt the Boeing 727 and, by 1969, had grown to the No. 4 carrier in America. But when Congress deregulated the airlines in 1978, Eastern struggled to hold altitude, carrying $3.5 billion in debt in an industry suddenly driven by low fares and scrappy upstarts. The end came when corporate raider Frank Lorenzo bought Eastern in 1986, plunging it into a cost-cutting, union-busting spiral that resulted in the grounding of its 190 jets in 1991.

The story of Eastern's second takeoff dates back to 2007 when a group of executives led by airline veteran Ed Wegel began to assemble the financial backing and scale the regulatory hurdles necessary to start flying to Cuba. In the process, Wegel's group acquired not just aircraft, but a critical piece of equipment: the intellectual property for the old Eastern. To the flying public, that means the famous "hockey stick" logo and the two-tone blue livery (Caribbean Blue over Ionosphere Blue) designed by Lippincott & Margulies in 1964.

Those brand assets, Leighton said, can easily be redeployed, even to a millennial audience with no memory of Eastern. "There's a lot of nostalgia within the American people," he said. "Eastern's visual branding is very clean. It looks like it stands for something. They can harken back to the history and say, 'We were great, and we're great now.'"

With CEO Wegel promising to "rebuild this airline to greatness, plane by plane," Eastern is off to a good start. That first flight for Havana left Miami on time—and it was full.

Rickenbacker: FPG/Getty Images; Trimotor: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

This story first appeared in the Jan. 18 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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