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Eastern Air Lines Looks to Take to the Skies Once Again

Eastern Air Lines may one day return to the skies.

Plans are under way to bring back the iconic Miami-based carrier, which operated from the 1920s until 1991.

In January, Eastern Air Lines Group filed its initial application with the U.S. Department of Transportation. The company, which acquired the old Eastern name and logo in 2009, is now in discussions with major aircraft leasing companies for a fleet of new aircraft.

Image: Eastern Air Lines jets at Newark Airport in New Jersey in 1986.
Eastern Air Lines jets are seen at Newark International Airport in New Jersey in 1986. Bill Foley / Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

“We expect to conclude arrangements in the next few weeks,” said Eastern’s president and CEO Edward Wegel.

The airline plans to complete all regulatory requirements by the end of 2014, but the timeline for takeoff, first as a charter operator and, later, with scheduled service, is up to the Federal Aviation Administration and DOT.

Given the turbulent nature of the U.S. airline industry, though, startup airlines face long odds. Higher fuel prices have made it difficult for newcomers to undercut established carriers.

Nearly 200 airlines have filed for bankruptcy since 1979, according to airline trade group Airlines for America. Although not all filings have resulted in liquidation, the airline industry has seen a period of consolidation over the past few years.

“You now have four very large airlines — American, Delta, United and Southwest — dominating the industry,” said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation. “And the history of failure for startups in this industry has caused investors to be wary.”

In February, for example, startup airline Florida Express Jet abruptly canceled its planned March launch.

PEOPLExpress, which, like Eastern, is trying to create a new airline with an old name, “doesn’t seem to be making a great deal of progress,” said George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting. “But there are a few notable exceptions, including JetBlue and Virgin America, which took many years to achieve a profit,” he said.

“The chance of any airline startup working out is now well under 50 percent,” said Schank, “and the chances of reviving an old brand are even worse.”