Against the odds, Eastern Airlines flies through the pandemic

T0222EASTERNAIR_C_HR [Credit: Ryan Scottini]
Eastern Airlines began service a mere weeks before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down travel worldwide. Still, it managed to fly 197 repatriation charter flights in 2020. Photo Credit: Ryan Scottini

One year ago last week, the new Eastern Airlines operated its first commercial flight, ferrying passengers from New York's JFK Airport to the Ecuadorian port city of Guayaquil.

As it turns out, Eastern and its CEO, Steve Harfst, could hardly have imagined selecting a worse time to begin an international airline. Only two months after that Jan. 12 launch, the Covid-19 pandemic closed borders around the world. 

For Eastern, whose business model revolves around flying customers to visit friends and relatives in Latin American markets served sparingly by other U.S. carriers, the border closures should have been an unmitigated disaster.

But a year later, Eastern flies on. From having offered just two frequencies on that lone New York-Ecuador route last January, the airline was scheduled as of Jan. 13 to fly 102 roundtrip frequencies this month on 11 routes, according to the travel data and analytics company Cirium.

Eastern's business model involves flying customers to visit friends and family in Latin America.
Eastern's business model involves flying customers to visit friends and family in Latin America. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Eastern Airlines

U.S. gateways are primarily New York, Miami and Boston. International destinations include Guayaquil; Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic; Georgetown, Guyana; Managua, Nicaragua; and Asuncion, Paraguay. 

So, how did this new airline manage to survive and grow through 2020? The story involves nimbleness and ingenuity. 

When the White House established a task force to repatriate Americans stranded abroad during the global shutdown, Eastern acted fast. 

"We created business for ourselves," said Harfst, who formerly was COO at Allegiant. "We went to the White House and said, 'Put us in touch with all of your embassies in Central and South America. If they've got enough people, we'll put up a flight on our website and put them on a plane and bring them back home.'"

The idea worked. Last year Eastern flew 197 repatriation charter flights and carried over 20,000 stranded customers, it said. Some of those repatriation services evolved into today's scheduled routes, including flights between Miami and Guayaquil and Miami and Georgetown, Harfst said. 

Overall in 2020, Eastern ended up operating in 14 different countries in the Americas while carrying more than 125,000 customers on 1,100 departures.

That's still a tiny footprint. For context, in 2019 Alaska Airlines flew approximately 1,300 flights per day. But although the pandemic lingers, Eastern is pressing forward with plans to expand its route offerings, maintaining an emphasis on markets that cater to travelers who have friends or family abroad.

Flight schedules are changing constantly throughout the industry as Covid-19 restrictions fluctuate. But at present, Eastern has eight routes with service of at least once per week on its March schedule that it isn't flying currently. The carrier also acquired two Boeing 777s last year to go along with the eight 767s it inherited in 2018 via the bankruptcy of the international charter operator Dynamic Airways. And cabin upgrades to those 767s, including installation of in-flight entertainment systems, are underway. 

Harfst knows 2021 won't be easy, but he's cautiously optimistic. He said his goal is to grow revenue and departures 25% to 30% over 2020 levels.

"If we can survive 2020, we should be able to survive 2021," he said.

As for his company's famous name, he said the new Eastern hasn't made it a marketing emphasis.

"I'd rather let our performance speak for itself," Harfst said.


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