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Eastern Air Lines takes off from Miami again with first revenue flight

Boeing 737-800 readies at MIA for the first revenue flight for the relaunched Eastern Air Lines, Thursday May 28, 2015.
Boeing 737-800 readies at MIA for the first revenue flight for the relaunched Eastern Air Lines, Thursday May 28, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Eastern is back in business at Miami International Airport.

The well-known carrier with the hockey stick logo — a resurrection of the airline that called Miami home for decades — lifted off for its first revenue flight on Thursday afternoon. The destination for Eastern flight 3145 was Havana, in partnership with HavanaAir Charters.

Eastern Air Lines announced last week that it had signed an agreement with Miami-based HavanaAir to provide the lift for the operator’s charter flights to Havana, Santa Clara and Camaguey.

The airline’s Boeing 737-800 will fly twice daily to Havana from Miami and weekly to the other destinations, with plans to add service to Cuba from other gateway cities in the U.S. over the next couple months.

HavanaAir used other carriers in the past but approached Eastern because of its longtime name recognition and newer generation of aircraft, said Eastern president and CEO Ed Wegel. He said he overheard someone notice the iconic signage and say: “Oh, Eastern? Are they back?”

Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst at Atmosphere Research in San Francisco, called the contract a “great win” for Eastern that will give the startup operational experience, revenue — and attention.

“It’ll be good for Eastern in terms of giving it a lot of frequencies and it’s also a high-profile market,” Harteveldt said. “It’s great visibility for the airline.”

For Wegel, Thursday’s flight (refreshments: soft drinks and plantain chips) represented a milestone in the works since 2007.

In the years since, he and his partners have worked to hammer out agreements with the estate of the old Eastern, which ceased operations 24 years ago; raise millions in capital; earn certification from the Federal Aviation Administration; get approval from the Department of Transportation; acquire plans; train the first group of pilots and flight attendants; earn government approval to be a charter carrier and get the OK from the Transportation Security Administration to go to Cuba.

As he sat in the terminal surrounded by passengers preparing to board, Wegel said Thursday afternoon that he felt “a sense of pride in our people that they put all this together.”

The earlier Eastern — once the largest private employer in Miami-Dade County — filed for bankruptcy protection in 1989 and stopped flying in 1991. The new airline is not affiliated with the original carrier but acquired its intellectual property; shareholders from the old airline also received rights to buy a stake in the new company.

Eventually, Eastern plans to fly as a scheduled carrier, but the process could take a year once started. The airline is still in the planning phase now, Wegel said.

In the near term, a second 145-seat aircraft is scheduled for delivery next month and will go into service July 1 flying for a “major scheduled airline” still to be announced into the Caribbean from New York and Miami. A third plane comes online in August.

Chris Sloan, editor in chief and publisher of AirwaysNews.com, said Eastern stands out as a charter carrier because its aircraft is newer and more fuel efficient than many of its competitors. And it stands out as a new iteration of an old brand because if its business plan, he said.

Unlike other old names such as Pan Am and Braniff that have been brought back to life only to fail again, Sloan said the new Eastern appears to be ramping up in a smart way.

“They’re going to get their operations straight, generate revenue on charters before venturing to scheduled service,” Sloan said. “That, to me, is encouraging that they’re not leaping with both feet in. Virtually everyone else who has resurrected a name has failed at it. They’ve all done it completely differently than Eastern is.”

The company has set up shop at Miami International Airport's Building 5A, the former Eastern operations center. Community appreciation for the airline was evident in December, when the first aircraft arrived and crowds of politicians and former employees gathered to welcome it with cheers.

In contrast to its December event, which featured Frank Sinatra songs, ice sculptures and historic photos, Thursday’s flight took off without any pageantry.

“Enough celebrating,” Wegel said. “Now we need to re-earn our wings.”

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