The Day After Eastern Folds: Many Passengers Are Left Up in the Air : Travel: Some connect with other carriers, several are left on standby status. The 62-year-old airline finally succumbed to a number of infirmities.
For anyone yet to hear the news, the Eastern Airlines ticket counter here at Miami International looked a mighty welcome place on Saturday. Agents were on duty. There was barely a line.
“We have two tickets for New York,” said Emil Brown, ready to check his bags and pick up a boarding pass. Instead he was handed a sheet of paper with instructions about how to write for a refund.
“Oh boy!” said Brown. “No more Eastern?”
“That’s right, oh boy!” answered the agent. He directed the traveler to the ticket counters for other carriers, where lines were decidedly longer.
On the day after Eastern folded its wings, things were a big mess for anyone in a hurry. Most airlines made accommodations for stranded passengers, such as waiving advance ticket requirements. Continental, American and Delta said that they would honor Eastern tickets for the same class of travel. Still, it was a long--and often expensive--day at the airport.
Syd and Lee Schuldiner of Rockville Center, N.Y., had been aboard a cruise ship all week. They did not get word that Eastern was a goner until they were in port.
“I would have jumped overboard if I could,” Syd Schuldiner said. “I knew I needed to get to the airport real fast. But we had to wait for our bags and for customs. That took hours. Now we’ve spent hours in line (at the airport).”
At LAX in Los Angeles, Josephine Smith, luggage in tow, was left scrambling for a plane ticket to Tampa, Fla., so that she could get back to work Monday. She had been visiting Los Angeles with her husband, who is staying behind on business.
“I never thought Eastern was going to go out of business,” she said, as her husband helped her dash from one airline to another. She was placed on standby at Continental Airlines but “I could be standing by for three days here.”
Donald and Ann Hudson of Los Angeles said they were angered by not having their money refunded immediately and also by the probable change in their February vacation plans the flight cancellations would cause.
“That’s ridiculous, all of a sudden their flights are canceled,” Donald Hudson said. “Why didn’t they tell anyone ahead of time? That’s not right. What makes me mad is that I’ve already paid my money but have to wait to get it back.”
Up to four Eastern flights out of LAX were canceled Saturday, according to ticket agents.
Eastern, at age 62, shut down operations after a long and particularly dreadful illness. It was hemorrhaging money and further transfusions seemed pointless. Management called it quits at 4:32 p.m. Friday. The final flight arrived in Atlanta from New York 7 hours and 18 minutes later.
The Wings of Man, they once called it. For 26 years it had been headed by Eddie Rickenbacker, World War I’s most famous flying ace. Frank Borman, the astronaut, was its leader for more than a decade. As late as 1984, it flew more passengers than any other carrier in the United States.
But recently, troubles were epidemic, some as common as poor maintenance, others as bizarre as bag handlers arrested for smuggling cocaine. There was no real tourniquet for the airline after its machinists went on strike March 4, 1989. The pilots and flight attendants joined them.
An epic labor struggle ensued against then-boss Frank Lorenzo, notorious for his anti-union niggardliness. Lorenzo took the airline into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Then, as he tried to rebuild it, lost control last April.
Eastern’s final commander was Martin Shugrue, a trustee appointed by a bankruptcy judge. Shugrue provided the eulogy at a Saturday morning press conference. It was as if he was reading from a coroner’s report.
“The problem was a series of factors beyond our control. . . " he said. “Soaring fuel costs; a dramatic industry-wide slowdown that is getting worse, not better; a deepening economic recession, fear of and eventually war. . . . In the end, it was the cumulative effect of all these events.”
Questioned, he mentioned vague hopes for a resurrection. Talks still go on with qualified buyers. Liquidation, of course, is another possibility.
“How ironic!” he said. On Eastern’s last day, the price of crude fell to less than $20 a barrel. “If that had happened 60 days ago, we might have had a different story.”
With the Eastern shutdown, some, including Shugrue, see an industry trend toward less competition and higher fares in the current deregulated environment. Others said Eastern’s demise would have little if any impact.
Pan Am Corp. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this month and Continental Airlines filed in December. Both carriers, however, continue to operate.
Operating in bankruptcy, Eastern did build an escrow account--put at $80 million by Shugrue--for passenger refunds.
The airline asks that unused ticket coupons be mailed along with the ticket holder’s name and address to: Eastern Airlines Inc., Passenger Refunds (MIAAR), Miami, Fla. 33148. Operators can be reached at: 1-800-EASTERN.
Across the street from Eastern’s Miami headquarters is the union hall of the striking machinists. Many inside called the latest news a victory.
“They never broke us,” said John Zajac, 22 years with the company, an avionics technician. “That’s what management wanted to do, all of them, Borman, Lorenzo, Shugrue. They couldn’t.”
Striking mechanic Jerry Knighten said the public should feel no sympathy for the 18,000 employees now out of work. Most were scabs, anyway, he said: “All the right-to-work they care about is the right-to-work for less.”
Staff writer Anthony Millican in Los Angeles contributed to this story.