Eastern A300 at Princess Juliana

Eastern A300

A bittersweet convergence of anniversaries and milestones brings us to Princess Juliana Airport in this photo, taken back in the spring of 1986.

First, the positive: This week Airbus celebrated a big milestone – its 10,000th order (it came as part of an order for 60 A320 NEOs for Virgin America).

But back in 1977, Airbus’ success was anything but assured. After six years of production, the A300 had attracted only modest interest from Lufthansa, Air Inter, and a few other European operators and Asian carriers. Big twins were still unproven at that time and despite far better economics, the DC-10 and L-1011 got much more attention. Less than 50 had been built (some of which sat on the tarmac for months without a home) before Eastern took a gamble and leased four A300’s in the fall of that year. They were so attractive to Eastern that management ordered 23 more. Eastern eventually had 34 of them.

Eastern’s order established Airbus a credible choice for major carriers outside of Europe, and helped kick-start Airbus’ burgeoning order book in the early eighties.

Now to the bittersweet: Eastern’s purchase of the A300 and the Boeing 757, for which it was the launch customer, were aimed at reducing the carriers costs in the face of ever climbing fuel prices. That was a sound decision in 1977, but when oil prices fell in the early eighties, the debt from these purchases severely impacted Eastern’s bottom line – as did severe competition from newly-created post-deregulation low-cost operators like People Express. In 1986, Eastern was sold to Frank Lorenzo’s Texas Air, which had already acquired Continental. Lorenzo’s infamous management ultimately led to huge labor strife – culminating in a massive walkout by Eastern’s mechanics and ramp agents and a sympathy strike by the Pilots and Flight Attendants that paralyzed the carrier. Eastern filed for Chapter 11 protection on March 9, 1989, five days after the walkout.

Through a court appointed trustee, Marty Shugrue (who later founded the second Pan-Am), attempts were made to right the ship, but the damage was done. The coup de gras came in the form of rising oil prices in the run up to the first gulf war. Eastern, once a hugely profitable airline run by Eddie Rickenbacker, ceased operations 20 years ago today – January 18, 1991.

But at the time this picture was taken, tourists are heading back to New York on a sunny day, and all of this is in the future. JetBlue, another iconic Airbus operator, now flies this route (SXM-JFK) with an A320. The Aircraft, N235EA (msn: 274), eventually went to Continental after Eastern’s demise, and then on to Presidential Airlines, Guyana Airlines, Carnival Cruise Airlines, and the second iteration of Pan-Am, before being converted to a freighter in 1998 for Schreiner Airways. It now wears the registration EI-DHL and flies for, appropriately, DHL via Air Contractors.

Photographer: Eduard Marmet.

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