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Eastern Airlines Assists in Repatriating Americans in South America

Eastern’s old livery on a Boeing 767. The airline’s livery has since been revised in line with the carrier’s new brand. (Photo: BriYYZ – https://www.flickr.com/photos/bribri/48170922371/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=80358737)

Eastern Air Lines, once a brand synonymous with luxurious air travel in the 1950s, fell on hard times in the 1990s and eventually closed its operations. An attempt to relaunch the the iconic brand in 2015 failed but a third attempt hopes to find a niche in flying in underserved markets.

In January 2020, Eastern Airlines relaunched operations between a pair of cities it believed had potential. Service between Guayaquil, Ecuador and New York City began with promising expectations. Plans to grow into flights between New York City and Georgetown, Guyana and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico later this year were slated but quickly dashed by the shutdown of travel by authorities due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The travel shutdown order created a unique problem, thousands of foreign nationals were stranded away from home and no easy way to get there. The United States Department of State reached out to several airlines for help. Eastern, a U.S. Department of Defense authorized Civil Reserve Air Fleet (CRAF) member, eagerly stepped in.

Eastern was asked to start repatriation flights between several Central and South American cities and the United States. According to its’ Twitter page, over 17,000 citizens have been repatriated by Eastern, most to the United States and well over 3,000 passengers have been returned to their home countries from the U.S. to neighbors in the south.

Eastern first helped a team of medical students based in Grenada and Panama City return to the U.S. in early March. Repatriation flights from Georgetown to Miami were next to start shortly thereafter. It primarily operates an irregular schedule, flying wherever the demand is needed.

Eastern jumped on the opportunity to establish a flow of cash into the new company and worked closely with the U.S. State Department in setting fares and schedules. Fares are slightly higher than other legacy carriers serving other international markets, primarily due to flying from the U.S. with empty aircraft. The repatriation flight fares are essentially a round trip fare for the aircraft.

The airline has reported a load factor of 68% which is significantly below what most low-cost airlines expect to operate at. Steve Harfst, Eastern’s CEO told Outside Online: “On some of the flights, we’ve lost money. Some of the flights, we haven’t. On average we’re probably just barely above breakeven.”

Flight scheduling is a challenge and often arranged with only days of notice. It currently only has visibility to flight demand of about two weeks out. The airline works directly with local embassies and has advance teams on the ground to handle on-ground operations.

Harfst speculates that with the shrinking legacy airline fleets, more underserved markets will develop significant growth opportunities for the company. It has also set its sites on operating U.S. domestic flights based on its recent application to serve between U.S. domestic cities of New York and San Diego, California.

“There are still people all around the world who will need to or want to travel that now won’t have that opportunity—or if they do, it’s a two- or three-stop flight. Those small markets are still very attractive to a company like Eastern,” Harfst told Outside Online.

Rick Shideler


  • Rick Shideler

    Rick is a retired airline maintenance professional with over 40 years experience in commercial, corporate and military aviation sectors. Rick holds an FAA Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) and a FCC General RadioTelephone Licenses. Rick is a veteran of the United States Air Force and has served in multiple leadership positions including Director of Maintenance for a large corporate aviation firm, airline Director of Engineering and has chaired multiple aviation maintenance safety and reliability industry committees. Rick took his first airplane ride at six months old and became an airline geek shortly thereafter.

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