When Carolyn Lee Wills (B.B.A. ’59) started her career at Eastern Air Lines in 1965, it was the leading carrier on the East Coast and one of the “Big Four” domestic airlines along with American, TWA and United. As the company’s first representative of women’s activities, Wills was hired to “promote travel and sales to women,” she remembers.
She went on to become the first woman to hold an executive management position with the airline when she was appointed regional manager of public relations. She managed the company’s Southern Division, ranging from Atlanta to Tokyo. A few years before Wills’ arrival, Eastern had pioneered an air shuttle service — the first of its kind — from Atlanta to New York, Boston and Washington, D.C.
In its heyday, Eastern was widely considered the gold standard of air travel. For nearly 30 years, the airline was led by Eddie Rickenbacker, a revered World War I flying ace, who was closely identified with Eastern until his retirement in 1963. Another legendary aviator, Frank Borman, the astronaut who commanded the Apollo 8 spacecraft around the moon, led Eastern from 1975–86.
Just three years into Borman’s tenure, the federal government deregulated the airline industry, introducing a free market in commercial airline travel. Eastern, a legacy carrier with an aging fleet, couldn’t keep up. Without government protection, Eastern’s profits nosedived, and the company was sold in 1986 to Texas Air International, headed by Frank Lorenzo.
Two months into the job, Lorenzo called for a half-billion-dollar cut in labor costs. Union workers opted to strike. Lorenzo countered by claiming bankruptcy and hired nonunion workers to fill the jobs of striking employees. But in late 1988, Lorenzo took his demands a step further and asked the machinists’ union to take a pay cut, resulting in yet another strike. This time, Eastern’s pilots joined the picket line, and the airline came to a standstill.
In 1991, Eastern flew its last flight. Its hubs in Atlanta and Miami were taken over by competitors, and its concourses in New York and Newark, N.J., were demolished.
Wills donated her collection of Eastern photographs, documents, memorabilia and ephemera to the Southern Labor Archives at Georgia State. Administered by Traci Drummond (B.A. ’97), the archive collects, preserves and makes available the heritage of Southern workers and their unions.
“We’ve been able to use her collection as a stepping stone to bring in other parts of the collection (not directly related to the labor movement),” Drummond says. That includes the papers of Martha Hamilton, a Washington Post reporter who covered the airline industry during Eastern’s struggles, the collection of Adrienne Cohen, an advertising executive who worked on print and radio ads, and the Jim Ashlock collection, comprised of periodicals, annual reports and strike files collected by the Eastern public relations officer. It also includes Borman’s papers. Borman was friend of famed negotiator W. J. (Bill) Usery Jr., namesake of the W. J. Usery Chair of the American Workplace in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies. Usery’s papers and the John Chaknis Air Line Pilots Association collection round out the Eastern materials in the collection.
“We’ve been able to bring together all of these aspects of the history of this airline, not just labor management. We have advertising, reporting, video, even uniforms,” Drummond says. “It’s not like anything else out there. It will be useful to people for years to come.”
Here, those who lived through and documented Eastern’s demise, those intimately familiar with the library’s collection and voices from the archives recall the legacy and downfall of the once great airline.
As told by:
FRANK BORMAN, former CEO of Eastern Air Lines
JEREMY BRIGHT, Georgia State Library technical assistant for Digital Projects
CHARLES BRYAN, former president of District 100 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers
TRACI DRUMMOND, archivist, Southern Labor Archives
MARTHA HAMILTON, former Washington Post reporter
FRANK LORENZO, former president of Texas Air International
W.J. (BILL) USERY, arbitrator and former United States Secretary of Labor
CAROLYN LEE WILLS, former Eastern Air Lines regional manager of public relations
EDITOR’S NOTE: Quotes taken from archival material are indicated.
“We Earn Our Wings Everyday”
Carolyn Lee Wills: Eastern was a family thing for me. I had an aunt, Lillian Cox, who worked for Eastern for a number of years. I grew up listening to her stories, and I just thought I wanted to work there. I also met my husband because of Eastern.
Jeremy Bright: In the 1950s, the Eastern flight experience is what you would imagine during that time — champagne and chateaubriand service. They set the tone for aviation. But as the other airlines began popping up, they had to start changing the way they were doing business because it was so expensive to keep up that level of service.
Wills: Eastern was the first airline out of Atlanta and the first airline out of Atlanta to carry passengers. It flew mail in 1928 and passengers in 1930. For the 50th anniversary, we rebuilt a Pitcairn Mailwing, the first airplane that flew to and from Atlanta. We also flew the first-ever international flight out of Atlanta.
Martha Hamilton: Eastern inaugurated all these great aircrafts. It had a great history. It was a great airline. It was a real tragedy it ended the way it did.
Traci Drummond: Atlanta was the hub. Eastern’s headquarters was in Miami, but Atlanta was the biggest hub. Most flights went through Atlanta.
Wills: Atlanta was always first for Eastern.
Bright: The Atlanta airport wouldn’t have grown as much as it did without Eastern helping it grow through its business.
Drummond: They would do a famous flight from here, called the “Jet to the Met,” where you got on a plane all dressed up, and go to the opera at the Met and then fly back.
Bright: Eastern was really involved in the community, and it was really great about promoting its services by partnering with other organizations.
Wills: We had an Eastern ice hockey team in Atlanta — really, we did! It had one female on it. We traveled all over playing hockey. Patty — the one female on the team, she loved to the be the one to face off — she would bat her eyelashes toward the other team. I contacted the [Johnny] Carson show, and Carson wanted to have her on as a guest, and I went with her. She was going to teach Carson how to play ice hockey. It was a very cute segment. She wore her hot pants, and she had her flight attendant uniform on. It ran 28 minutes! It just kept getting better and better.
Bright: One of the great things about the Wills collection is not only did she do public relations with Eastern and the public, but she was really great about documenting the celebration of Eastern and Eastern employees.
Drummond: The Wills collection started coming to us in 1986 before Eastern closed down — before the strike, before the bankruptcy.
Hamilton: It was a great airline. It really dominated the East Coast, so it was a big story for the Washington Post. I really wanted to donate my papers and keepsakes somewhere. And because machinists were involved — and as someone who is the daughter of a machinist — it made sense to donate it to [the Southern Labor Archives at] Georgia State.
Dear Fellow Pilot: As Eastern management continues to attempt to rectify the numerous shortfalls programmed into their system, we, as pilots, can expect further attacks on our working agreement. Apparently, stability is a thing of the past unless there are changes in management philosophy. — Sept. 8, 1986, Eastern Air Lines Pilots’ Newsletter
Wills: Through the years, Eddie Rickenbacker welcomed unions. They formed easily. That was part of what he did. There were disputes through the years, but they resolved.
Bright: Both sides, the machinists and the management team, felt like each side kept changing the rules.
In 1983, instead of going on strike, unions and Eastern management agreed on an ownership plan. Workers agreed to major concessions, including wage cuts, in return for equity and two seats on the company’s board. Charles Bryan, president of District 100 of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW), which represented about 10,000 Eastern Air Lines workers, was one of the first members of the board.
Frank Borman*: If we [had] had the resources to take a strike, particularly with the machinists’ union in ’83, the company would have been immeasurably better off. … We didn’t have the resources to take a strike.
W. J. Usery**: Colonel Borman had a genuine, strong feeling for the pilots, and it hurt him greatly that the pilots had seemingly become mad with him. This all started over the ’83 thing, when they thought he took money and gave it to Bryan. And all during the years that Colonel Borman had been at Eastern, he had had a very close working relationship with the pilots. They respected him, and he respected them. Colonel Borman was a pilot himself, a test pilot. He knew as much about airplanes as any of the rest of them, talked that language and so forth.
Bright: We have the correspondence between Usery and the machinists and management. Usery came out and said to the machinists, “You can’t continue a smear campaign against management and expect them to come to the table,” and to management, “You cannot treat the machinists as if they can be easily bowled over, and if you want to come to an agreement with them, you have to give up something.”
Charles Bryan***: In my opinion … we’ve had a lose-lose situation going on. It’s been every six months or every year of some crisis. Either one of the unions [is] potentially negotiating a contract, [or there’s] a potential to strike, a default in our loans, a threat of bankruptcy, not meeting payroll on a couple of occasions. … And [the way] that all played out to the public was very, very detrimental.
President-elect Donald Trump purchased the Eastern Air Shuttle in 1989. His foray into the aviation business was brief.
On March 9, 1989, five days after the machinists’ strike, Eastern was forced into bankruptcy protection, and much of its assets were auctioned off, including the Eastern Air Shuttle. Donald Trump purchased the shuttle for $365 million and renamed it Trump Shuttle. In the June 1, 1989, issue of “Labor Speaks,” the newsletter for the Transportation Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, it was reported that the union filed a motion in support of the Trump bid over one by America West.
It “favored Trump over America West because the Trump deal included employment for Eastern flight attendants.” However, the union opposed any sale of the shuttle operation in general. For many who believed Lorenzo was selling off Eastern’s best assets, the sale of the shuttle was the nail in the airline’s coffin.
“I can tell you that, personally, the decision to sell the shuttle was one of the most difficult decisions I have been involved with in my life,” Lorenzo said in a video to Eastern employees in 1989.
Hamilton, the former Washington Post reporter, joined the President-elect on the shuttle’s inaugural flight.
“I was sitting next to him,” she says. “He was clueless about the industry. Didn’t know the first thing about it. He wasn’t even aware of some of his competition.”
US Airways ended up in control of the shuttle in 1992 after Trump negotiated a deal that gave bankers control of the airline.
Drummond: During the labor issues in the mid ’80s, Borman began talking with Frank Lorenzo. He brought him in with the intent to sell Eastern, and Lorenzo came in in 1986 and immediately began union busting.
Bright: The airline pilots said, “Oh, he’s not coming for our jobs,” and they went on a sympathy strike with the machinists. People say that was really the turning point.
Frank Lorenzo****: If the pilots, flight attendants and non-contract employees support the picket line and don’t show up for work, Eastern cannot survive. Eastern doesn’t have the financial resources to be able to withstand a strike.
The IAMAW struck March 4, 1989, in a dispute over Eastern’s demands for $120 million in contract concessions. Eastern pilots honored the machinists’ picket lines and joined during a sympathy strike. The airline was grounded.
Borman*****: In my view, based upon my understanding of the facts … the primary causes of the result, which I view as a fiasco for all, were the tactics and misjudgments by the Air Line Pilots Association and their advisers. … These resulted in the convergence of a series of unintended and unanticipated events which permitted the situation to break down. The problem was that forces were at work in this situation which had not been present in earlier workouts at Eastern.
Hamilton: It never occurred to Lorenzo that the pilots would support the machinists. Years later, I talked with a guy who was close with Lorenzo and asked him about it. He said Lorenzo really believed in the “economic man” — or that people would act solely on what was good for the individual financially.
The End of an Airline
“Eastern flew into oblivion last night.” — From Martha Hamilton and Frank Swoboda’s Jan. 19, 1991, Washington Post story
Wills: I was out saying, “Please come out and fly!” It was a delicate dance between the strikers and the people working.
Hamilton: It was a really a chaotic time — from the beginning of the strike to the shutdown.
Wills: When the machinists went on strike, we could have hired out those jobs. That was maintenance, cleaning, ramp service, et cetera. We could have hired all that out. But when the pilots went over, we could not hire that out. It was a sad situation to think that this big company had to schedule volunteer pilots. And that was the end of Eastern, really.
Bright: There are still groups of pilots and retirees and machinists who get together and, I’m sure, still hash over the strike and how it was handled. Both sides feel slighted.
Wills: Recently, I spoke to the retired Eastern Air Lines pilots’ association, and I told them: “You helped make Delta wealthy — every time we were on strike, people were lining up to get on Delta.” You could have heard a pin drop in the room after I said that.
Hamilton: I got a call from a guy high up in Lorenzo’s operation saying they were going to shut down at midnight [Jan. 19, 1991], and I immediately wrote the top of my story. Then I booked a flight into Atlanta and into Miami. I interviewed some people in Atlanta, then got on the plane to Miami. Before we took off, the pilot said, “Folks, I have to tell you that after 30 some-odd years at Eastern, my career is over. I just want you to know drinks are on me.” Then heading into Miami, he landed and immediately took back off. A touch-and-go landing. Everyone just gasped. He came back on and said, “Folks, I just wanted to take one more trip around Miami for old times’ sake.” So we flew over Miami and came back in for a second landing. I thought, “Boy, I’ve got a great kicker for my story.”
For the record, Hamilton and Swoboda’s co-written story, dated Jan. 19, 1991, ended with the quote from Eastern captain Dennis McMillan. Here’s Hamilton’s “kicker,” or the last line of a newspaper story: “‘It has been confirmed that Eastern is shutting its doors, and this will be the last trip for us. On a personal note it has been such an honor, a pleasure and a privilege serving you,’ [McMillan] said with his voice breaking. ‘And I really want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your loyalty,’ he said to applause and whistles.” At 10 p.m., on time, Flight 349 touched down on the runway, then accelerated and lifted off again to circle Miami one last time.
*W.J. Usery interview by Jerry Barrett, March 6, 1986
** Borman interview with Bryant Gumbel on the “Today Show” announcing his retirement, June 4, 1986
*** Also taken from the Borman interview with Gumbel
**** From a March 3, 1989, recorded video
***** From Frank Borman’s personal papers