It’s late February 1989.
Supreme Leader of Iran Ayatollah Khomeini places a $3 million bounty on the head of The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie. President George H. Bush attends the funeral of Japanese Emperor Hirohito, before meeting with China’s Deng Xiaoping and South Korea’s Roh Tae-woo. The Dallas Cowboys fire coach Tom Landry after a 29-year career with the team.
I’m a junior in college. I have only a few pennies in my pocket, but my girlfriend and I figure out a way to go on a spring break trip to Fort Myers, Florida in the southwest corner of the state. Many of our friends are heading to traditional Spring Break havens – Daytona, Fort Lauderdale, and Key West. We’ll be staying with her grandparents in a quiet retirement community, but we aren’t too picky. We need a break from classes and figure that some time in sun-soaked Florida — to steal a phrase from the late 80s — “will be just the ticket.”
Time for Takeoff
Saturday, February 25: We board an Eastern Airlines plane and fly out of Philadelphia International Airport. We land three hours later in Florida. It’s my first plane trip. I remember being wide-eyed the entire time, from liftoff to landing, amazed that the flight attendant offered us a soda and a bag of pretzels.
Before we even came up with the idea of flying to Florida, however, the wheels were well in motion. Eastern Airlines faces severe labor unrest. With labor negotiations with the Machinists Union going nowhere fast in early January, the National Mediation Board sets up a 30-day cooling off period, at the end of which management could either enforce a contract, or labor could strike.
Thursday, March 2: My girlfriend and I spend our time relaxing near the pool at the complex. The retirement community is rather large, but we have the pool to ourselves. The water seems to shimmer in the sun and is the bluest of blues. Soon, though, things will get dark, very dark and cloudy.
In one last-ditch effort to keep the airline flying, Eastern offers the pilots union a new labor contract in which they were guaranteed jobs and pay raises. This deal includes provisions that if Eastern were declared bankrupt or merged into Continental, its sister airline, the contract would be void.
No flights in, no flights out
Saturday, March 4: Things get real. At 12:01 a.m., Eastern’s Pilots and Flight Attendants walked out in a sympathy strike to support the machinists strike. We’re supposed to head back to home, but when we call Eastern’s phone number, no flights are coming or going. We’re stuck in paradise.
Hmmm, well, I guess class will have to wait?
Tuesday, March 7: Finally, we get our flight changed to another airline, I forget which one all these years later, but I clearly remember flying back home and making my way back to my room. I miss a day and a half of classes. Most of my professors are fine with me missing class. One professor laughs when I tell her about the Eastern strike and being stuck in Florida, another gives me a dirty look like he doesn’t believe me, but both let me off without too much trouble.
Eastern’s employees don’t fair as well.
Eastern’s Pilots held the line for another 280 days, but when they finally voted to return to work at the end of November, there were no jobs to return to. In fact, less than three years later, Eastern ceased to exist.
The strike marked the end of Eastern, but was the beginning of my love of flying. I’ve never lost the childlike wonderment of being in one city at 9:30 in the morning and, within a couple of hours, being in another city nearly a thousand miles away — all thanks to flying.
Yes, I’ll never forget my first plane trip.